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Elections – ‘Virginia Law’ Supports Incumbent Choice

By: Deborah Elkins//April 20, 2016

Elections – ‘Virginia Law’ Supports Incumbent Choice

By: Deborah Elkins//April 20, 2016

24th Senatorial District Republican Committee v. Alcorn (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-068-16, 37 pp.) (Gregory, J.) No. 15-1478, April 19, 2016; USDC at Harrisonburg, Va. (Dillon, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: The 4th Circuit affirms a district court’s decision that it had no subject matter jurisdiction over a lawsuit filed by the 24th Senatorial District Republican Committee of Virginia and its committee chair challenging Virginia’s Incumbent Protection Act, which allows an incumbent state legislator to choose the method of nominating a candidate for the General Assembly.

Whether the committee has standing depends on whether its alleged injury was the result of the Act or a lawful and voluntary decision on behalf of the Party. The commonwealth argues the Party has limited its authority to determine unilaterally the method of nomination through its adoption of Article V Section D(1) of the Party Plan, which says the “Legislative District Committee shall determine whether candidates for Legislative District public office shall be nominated by Mass Meeting, Party Canvass, Convention or Primary, where permitted to do so under Virginia law.” We agree.

We conclude the language of the Plan is clear and unambiguous: the Plan delegates to the Committee the authority to determine the nomination method unless Virginia law otherwise limits that authority. Where Virginia law sets forth an alternative method of nomination, the Plan does not give the Committee the authority to supersede or challenge that determination. Because the Party has made a voluntary choice to limit the Committee’s authority in this way, the plaintiffs have no complaint that the party’s right to govern itself has been substantially burdened by the Act because the source of the complaint is the party’s own decision. We affirm the district court’s holding that the Committee lacks standing to bring this suit.

Lastly we address the claim of an intervenor who seeks the nomination in the 24th Senatorial District, and who says he has standing independent of the Party to bring his equal protection claim. Because neither Virginia law nor the Plan gives the intervenor a legally protected interest in determining the nomination method in the first place, he fails to make out an invasion of a legally protected interest, i.e., actual injury, in this case. Even if we assume the intervenor has a legally protected interest, he still fails to demonstrate how that injury is redressable by a decision of this court. There is nothing we can do to prevent the Party from deferring to the incumbent’s choice.

We must apply the plain language of the contract.

Judgment affirmed.


Traxler, C.J.: The majority affirms the dismissal of this case for lack of standing because it believes the contractual term “Virginia Law” includes Virginia statutes that are void for unconstitutionality. Because I believe the phrase plainly does not encompass Virginia statutes that are invalid, and because the Supreme Court has construed nearly identical language to mean valid state law, I respectfully dissent.

I would reverse the district court judgment dismissing the complaints for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

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