The state Supreme Court ruled this week that 2004 presidential candidate Ralph Nader and his running mate, Peter Miguel Camejo, owe more than $80,000 in court costs for extensive litigation over invalid signatures collected on ballot petitions.
"Given the magnitude of the fraud and deception implicated in [their] signature-gathering efforts, their claim that the Commonwealth Court acted in an unjust and unconstitutional fashion by assessing transcription and stenography costs does not pass the straight-face test," Justice Sandra Schultz Newman wrote for the majority.
Fearing the consumer advocate's independent candidacy would take votes away from Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, a team of lawyers reportedly tied to the Democratic Party filed suit Aug. 9, 2004, in Commonwealth Court, alleging the Nader petitions contained insufficient valid signatures to qualify them for the ballot.
As a result of the lawsuit, Commonwealth Court found wide-ranging improprieties in the petition signatures and disqualified nearly two-thirds of the 51,000 signatures Mr. Nader and Mr. Camejo submitted, and ruled they could not appear on the ballot.
The hefty court cost was attributed to the "monumental effort and resources" 12 judges invested, reviewing voter signatures in 63 counties, which required time on evenings and weekends. The candidates' lawyer yesterday described it as "the most unwieldy election case in the history of Pennsylvania."
The disqualified signatures included "Mickey Mouse," "Fred Flintstone" and "John Kerry."
"There of course were signatures that were identified as being wholly improper. They were the signatures of people who were not Nader supporters. Those signatures and the people who made them were sabotaging the Nader campaign in Pennsylvania, " said Basil C. Culyba, who represented Mr. Nader and Mr. Camejo in the lawsuit.
He said most of the signatures stricken were due to technicalities like a changed address or an incomplete name rather than blatant fraud. Only about 1 percent of the signatures were found to be invented and all of those were collected by one independent contractor in Philadelphia, Mr. Culyba said.
The court held the candidates owed $42,835 for transcription fees and $38,267 for services from handwriting analysts, for a total of $81,102.
Mr. Culyba said he had not yet spoken with Mr. Nader about the ruling and could not say whether he anticipated a federal appeal.
Kim Watterson, attorney for the citizens group behind the lawsuit, said the group was "very gratified with the ruling because it affirmed the importance of the courts in maintaining the integrity of the electoral process."
But some saw the decision as another roadblock to independent and third-party candidacies in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania "has the most unfair ballot access laws in the country," said Scott McLarty, the national Green Party spokesman.
"The Democrats and Republicans have colluded to make sure that they don't face any other competition. If you're a Democrat or a Republican you have to collect 2,000 signatures to get on the primary ballot. If you're Green or some other party you have to collect 67,000 signatures."
Now, candidates must also consider the financial burden they could face if their ballot petitions are challenged.
In the past month, the Pennsylvania Green Party's 2006 gubernatorial candidate, Marakay Rogers, and lieutenant governor candidate, Christina Valente, withdrew their ballot petitions, Mr. McLarty said, because "Democrats were threatening a line-by-line legal challenge against them."
Ms. Rogers said she could not afford the $8,000 to $10,000 per week her lawyers required to defend her ballot petitions.
Carl Romanelli, the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, decided to stand behind his petitions despite a legal challenge.
Mr. Nader's and Mr. Camejo's lawyer considers ballot access laws a serious stumbling block. "Everyone understands you can defeat democracy by stopping people from voting, but you can do it just as easily by controlling the ballot. If you don't offer voters a choice, you've dealt just as crushing a blow as if you'd prevented them from voting," Mr. Culyba said.
The Associated Press contributed. Gabrielle Banks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.