U.S. Supreme Court
BULLOCK v. CARTER, 405 U.S. 134 (1972)Decided February 24, 1972
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.
Under Texas law, a candidate must pay a filing fee as a condition to having his name placed on the ballot in a primary election. The constitutionality of the Texas filing-fee system is the subject of this appeal from the judgment of a three-judge District Court.
Appellee Pate met all qualifications to be a candidate in the May 2, 1970, Democratic primary for the office of County Commissioner of Precinct Four for El Paso County, except that he was unable to pay the $1,424.60 assessment required of candidates in that primary. Appellee Wischkaemper sought to be placed on the Democratic primary ballot as a candidate for County Judge in Tarrant County, but he was unable to pay the $6,300 assessment for candidacy for that office. Appellee Carter wished to be a Democratic candidate for Commissioner of the General Land Office; his application was not accompanied by the required $1,000 filing fee.
After being denied places on the Democratic primary
ballots in their respective counties, these appellees
instituted separate actions in the District Court
challenging the validity of the Texas filing-fee system.
Their actions were consolidated...
The record shows that the fees required of the candidates in this case are far from exceptional in their magnitude. The size of the filing fees is plainly a natural consequence of a statutory system that places the burden of financing primary elections on candidates rather than on the governmental unit, and that imposes a particularly heavy burden on candidates for local office. The filing fees required of candidates seeking nomination for state offices and offices involving statewide primaries are more closely regulated by statute and tend to be appreciably smaller. The filing fees for candidates for State Representative range from $150 to $600, depending on the population of the county from which nomination is sought. Candidates for State Senator are subject to a maximum assessment of $1,000. Candidates for nominations requiring statewide primaries, including candidates for Governor and United States Senator, must pay a filing fee of $1,000 to the chairman of the state executive committee of the party conducting the primary.
The filing-fee requirement is limited to party primary elections, but the mechanism of such elections is the creature of state legislative choice and hence is "state action" within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although we have emphasized on numerous occasions the breadth of power enjoyed by the States in determining voter qualifications and the manner of elections, this power must be exercised in a manner consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The question presented in this case is whether a state law that prevents potential candidates for public office from seeking the nomination of their party due to their inability to pay a portion of the cost of conducting the primary election is state action that unlawfully discriminates against the candidates so excluded or the voters who wish to support them.
The threshold question to be resolved is whether the filing-fee system should be sustained if it can be shown to have some rational basis, or whether it must withstand a more rigid standard of review.
In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), the Court held that Virginia's imposition of an annual poll tax not exceeding $1.50 on residents over the age of 21 was a denial of equal protection. Subjecting the Virginia poll tax to close scrutiny, the Court concluded that the placing of even a minimal price on the exercise of the right to vote constituted an invidious discrimination. The problem presented by candidate filing fees is not the same, of course, and we must determine whether the strict standard of review of the Harper case should be applied.
The initial and direct impact of filing fees is felt by aspirants for office, rather than voters, and the Court has not heretofore attached such fundamental status to candidacy as to invoke a rigorous standard of review. However, the rights of voters and the rights of candidates do not lend themselves to neat separation; laws that affect candidates always have at least some theoretical, correlative effect on voters. Of course, not every limitation or incidental burden on the exercise of voting rights is subject to a stringent standard of review. Texas does not place a condition on the exercise of the right to vote, nor does it quantitatively dilute votes that have been cast. Rather, the Texas system creates barriers to candidate access to the primary ballot, thereby tending to limit the field of candidates from which voters might choose. The existence of such barriers does not of itself compel close scrutiny. In approaching candidate restrictions, it is essential to examine in a realistic light the extent and nature of their impact on voters.
Unlike a filing-fee requirement that most candidates could be expected to fulfill from their own resources or at least through modest contributions, the very size of the fees imposed under the Texas system gives it a patently exclusionary character. Many potential office seekers lacking both personal wealth and affluent backers are in every practical sense precluded from seeking the nomination of their chosen party, no matter how qualified they might be, and no matter how broad or enthusiastic their popular support. The effect of this exclusionary mechanism on voters is neither incidental nor remote. Not only are voters substantially limited in their choice of candidates, but also there is the obvious likelihood that this limitation would fall more heavily on the less affluent segment of the community, whose favorites may be unable to pay the large costs required by the Texas system. To the extent that the system requires candidates to rely on contributions from voters in order to pay the assessments, a phenomenon that can hardly be rare in light of the size of the fees, it tends to deny some voters the opportunity to vote for a candidate of their choosing; at the same time it gives the affluent the power to place on the ballot their own names or the names of persons they favor. Appellants do not dispute that this is endemic to the system. This disparity in voting power based on wealth cannot be described by reference to discrete and precisely defined segments of the community as is typical of inequities challenged under the Equal Protection Clause, and there are doubtless some instances of candidates representing the views of voters of modest means who are able to pay the required fee. But we would ignore reality were we not to recognize that this system falls with unequal weight on voters, as well as candidates, according to their economic status.
Because the Texas filing-fee scheme has a real and appreciable impact on the exercise of the franchise, and because this impact is related to the resources of the voters supporting a particular candidate, we conclude, as in Harper, that the laws must be "closely scrutinized" and found reasonably necessary to the accomplishment of legitimate state objectives in order to pass constitutional muster.
Appellants contend that the filing fees required by the challenged statutes are necessary both to regulate the ballot in primary elections and to provide a means for financing such elections.
The Court has recognized that a State has a legitimate interest in regulating the number of candidates on the ballot. In so doing, the State understandably and properly seeks to prevent the clogging of its election machinery, avoid voter confusion, and assure that the winner is the choice of a majority, or at least a strong plurality, of those voting, without the expense and burden of runoff elections. Although we have no way of gauging the number of candidates who might enter primaries in Texas if access to the ballot were unimpeded by the large filing fees in question here, we are bound to respect the legitimate objectives of the State in avoiding overcrowded ballots. Moreover, a State has an interest, if not a duty, to protect the integrity of its political processes from frivolous or fraudulent candidacies.
There is no escape from the conclusion that the imposition of filing fees ranging as high as $8,900 tends to limit the number of candidates entering the primaries. However, even under conventional standards of review, a State cannot achieve its objectives by totally arbitrary means; the criterion for differing treatment must bear some relevance to the object of the legislation. To say that the filing fee requirement tends to limit the ballot to the more serious candidates is not enough. There may well be some rational relationship between a candidate's willingness to pay a filing fee and the seriousness with which he takes his candidacy, but the candidates in this case affirmatively alleged that they were unable, not simply unwilling, to pay the assessed fees, and there was no contrary evidence. It is uncontested that the filing fees exclude legitimate as well as frivolous candidates. And even assuming that every person paying the large fees required by Texas law takes his own candidacy seriously, that does not make him a "serious candidate" in the popular sense. If the Texas fee requirement is intended to regulate the ballot by weeding out spurious candidates, it is extraordinarily ill-fitted to that goal; other means to protect those valid interests are available....
In addition to the State's purported interest in regulating the ballot, the filing fees serve to relieve the State treasury of the cost of conducting the primary elections, and this is a legitimate state objective; in this limited sense it cannot be said that the fee system lacks a rational basis. But under the standard of review we consider applicable to this case, there must be a showing of necessity. Appellants strenuously urge that apportioning the cost among the candidates is the only feasible means for financing the primaries. They argue that if the State must finance the primaries, it will have to determine which political bodies are "parties" so as to be entitled to state sponsorship for their nominating process, and that this will result in new claims of discrimination. Appellants seem to overlook the fact that a similar distinction is presently embodied in Texas law since only those political parties whose gubernatorial candidate received 200,000 or more votes in the last preceding general election are required to conduct primary elections. Moreover, the Court has recently upheld the validity of a state law distinguishing between political parties on the basis of success in prior elections. We are not persuaded that Texas would be faced with an impossible task in distinguishing between political parties for the purpose of financing primaries.
We also reject the theory that since the candidates are availing themselves of the primary machinery, it is appropriate that they pay that share of the cost that they have occasioned. The force of this argument is diluted by the fact that candidates for offices requiring statewide primaries are generally assessed at a lower rate than candidates for local office, although the statewide primaries undoubtedly involve a greater expense. More importantly, the costs do not arise because candidates decide to enter a primary or because the parties decide to conduct one, but because the State has, as a matter of legislative choice, directed that party primaries be held. The State has presumably chosen this course more to benefit the voters than the candidates.
Appellants seem to place reliance on the self-evident fact that if the State must assume the cost, the voters, as taxpayers, will ultimately be burdened with the expense of the primaries. But it is far too late to make out a case that the party primary is such a lesser part of the democratic process that its cost must be shifted away from the taxpayers generally. The financial burden for general elections is carried by all taxpayers and appellants have not demonstrated a valid basis for distinguishing between these two legitimate costs of the democratic process. It seems appropriate that a primary system designed to give the voters some influence at the nominating stage should spread the cost among all of the voters in an attempt to distribute the influence without regard to wealth. Viewing the myriad governmental functions supported from general revenues, it is difficult to single out any of a higher order than the conduct of elections at all levels to bring forth those persons desired by their fellow citizens to govern. Without making light of the State's interest in husbanding its revenues, we fail to see such an element of necessity in the State's present means of financing primaries as to justify the resulting incursion on the prerogatives of voters.
Since the State has failed to establish the requisite justification for this filing-fee system, we hold that it results in a denial of equal protection of the laws.