Two-Party System Gets Boost in Court Ruling

Decision may limit small parties' access to ballots

Joel Rogers is a political thinker in the "progressive" Wisconsin mold - hailed two weeks ago as one of a new breed of "leaders for the next century," as one news magazine put it.

Yet a Supreme Court decision yesterday will make the University of Wisconsin law professor, chairman of the obscure New Party, less likely to be seen or heard in the current political game.

In a decision cheered by Republicans and Democrats - and criticized by small parties - the high court ruled that candidates for state office may not appear on a ballot as the champion of more than one party. The case was closely watched by defenders of the traditional two-party system, who worry that allowing candidates to represent coalitions of more than one party will create political chaos - and eat into their support at the ballot box.

The New Party, which has never won more than 5 percent of the vote in Minnesota, has tried on a regular basis to "fuse" its candidates with those of other parties. The practice of "fusion" harks back to a strategy in the 19th century practiced by Democrats and Populists in the Midwest. The aim is to make small parties more attractive to voters and to develop status and clout in the electoral system.

But yesterday's 6-to-3 Supreme Court decision upheld "antifusion" laws in 35 states. Writing for the court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist upheld a state's right to make its own election laws and argued that the limitations on free speech for small parties "though not trivial...are not severe."

"States may, and inevitably must, enact reasonable regulations of parties, elections, and ballots to reduce election- and campaign-related disorder," the chief justice wrote.

Such antifusion laws are set up to conduct fair and orderly elections. But in four states, including New York, small-party candidates are allowed to seek more visibility by appearing as candidates for numerous like-minded political movements, whether they are conservative "right to life" parties or left-leaning environmental parties.

In the 1980 presidential campaign in New York, for example, Democrat Jimmy Carter pulled in more votes than Republican Ronald Reagan in the traditional two-party tally. But Mr. Reagan won New York on the added strength of his vote as a candidate for the Conservative Party.

The Supreme Court first stepped into the fray over access to the ballot in states in 1968 when George Wallace, governor of Alabama, attempted to get on the presidential ballot in the state of Ohio. The high court ruled that states can regulate but not impose severe burdens on new parties.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing yesterday in dissent and joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter, stated, "It demeans the strength of the two-party system to assume that the major parties need to rely on laws that discriminate against independent voters and minor parties in order to preserve their positions of power."

"Parties like the New Party represent interesting alternatives," says Georgetown University law professor Mark Tushnet. "The court's decision makes it harder for them to get on the ballot. Harder, but not impossible."

In other decisions yesterday, the high court ruled:

* Local governments should be less vulnerable to lawsuits when their police officers use excessive force.

The justices split sharply on a decision that could also make it more difficult for citizens to sue local governments over other violations of federally protected rights.

The court said Bryan County, Okla., was wrongly punished for a 1991 incident in which Reserve Deputy Stacy Burns threw Jill Brown to the ground with such force that Ms. Brown's knees were seriously injured.

Deputy Burns had been hired by the sheriff, who was also his uncle, despite his record of misdemeanor convictions.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court that although the sheriff's decision to hire Burns may have been a poor one, it does not make the county vulnerable to a lawsuit. The sheriff's "inadequate scrutiny of Burns's record cannot constitute 'deliberate indifference' to [Mrs. Brown's] federally protected right to be free from the use of excessive force," Justice O'Connor said.

* Police armed with court warrants to search for drugs cannot always enter homes without first knocking and announcing themselves.

Officers must be able to show they had reason to believe a suspect would be dangerous or would destroy evidence if alerted to the police raid, the justices said. The court unanimously refused to create an exception for drug cases to its 1995 decision that said no-knock entries usually are unconstitutional - prohibited by the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

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