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John Panasuk of New London, Minnesota, held a sign during the Tea Party rally on April 15, 2010, at the Minnesota state Capitol. (AP file photo: Craig Lassig)
John Panasuk of New London, Minnesota, held a sign during the Tea Party rally on April 15, 2010, at the Minnesota state Capitol. (AP file photo: Craig Lassig)

Bar Buzz: Yes, the Tea Party is ‘political,’ 8th Circuit rules

It was not fast, did not come as a surprise, and may not have been the best use of scarce judicial resources. But the 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals seems to have at last put the kibosh on a long-running challenge to a Minnesota election law barring the wearing of “a political badge, political button or other political insignia” inside a polling place.

The dispute began a few days before the 2010 general elections when several members of the then-burgeoning Tea Party movement learned that election officials in Ramsey and Hennepin counties said they would not let people into the polls if they displayed “Please I.D. Me” buttons or wore T-shirts with Tea Party slogans like “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Markets.”

Asserting that such fashion restrictions trampled the First Amendment, the three individual plaintiffs (joined by the North Star Tea Party Patriots, Minnesota Voters Alliance and Election Integrity Watch) demanded a temporary restraining order. After all, those “Please I.D. Me” buttons don’t really amount to “a political statement” and, when you think about it, the Tea Party is just a “non-partisan association of citizens” who “demand government integrity.”

Right?

That didn’t fly with U.S. District Court Judge Joan Erickson. The day before the election, Ericksen refused to grant the restraining order, concluding that the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed because the law at issue – Minn. Stat. 211B.11 — is “reasonably related to the legitimate state interest of ‘maintaining peace, order, and decorum at the polls.”

Despite that ruling, the windmill tilting persisted through four election cycles.

But on February 28, an 8th Circuit panel finally got around to stating what would seem obvious to many: The state does have justifiable reasons to ban “political material” from polling places and the Tea Party does indeed embrace “recognizable political views.”

In the support of the latter contention, Judge Duane Benton pointed to the indisputably obvious: There is a Tea Party caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives. The judge also noted that there was no evidence that anyone was denied the right to vote for wearing a Tea Party T-shirt or a “Please I.D. Me” button.

Still, the plaintiffs insisted, they were victims of selective enforcement. While some Tea Party faithful were forced by election workers to cover or remove offending logos, they said, other unnamed voters — allegedly wearing different sorts of “political” apparel — were not similarly hounded.

The appeals court found a problem with that claim, too. The plaintiffs, Benton wrote, offered no proof of its truth, just belief and “metaphysical speculation.”  And because metaphysical speculation doesn’t rise to the level of a genuine issue of material fact, Benton concluded, no reasonable judge or jury could say that the District Court erred in tossing the suit.

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