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Libertarian Party of Ohio v. Wilhem

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Eastern Division

January 13, 2020

LIBERTARIAN PARTY OF OHIO, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DEGEE WILHEM, et al., Defendants.

          Jolson Magistrate Judge.

          OPINION & ORDER

          ALGENON L. MARBLEY CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction. (Doc. 37.) The hearing on this Motion was held on Monday, November 25, 2019 at 9:30 a.m. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction [#37].

         II. BACKGROUND

         On September 24, 2018, the Libertarian Party of Ohio and Harold Thomas (“Plaintiffs”), as Party Chair, filed complaints with Ohio's Elections Commission asserting that three organizations responsible for facilitating gubernational debates throughout Ohio in 2018 violated Ohio Revised Code § 3599.03, which governs corporate campaign contributions. (Doc. 1 at 39-41.) Plaintiffs claimed that these organizations, by staging an exclusive debate between the Democratic and Republican gubernational candidates, and by not notifying or inviting Plaintiffs' gubernational candidate or employing objective criteria in selecting the debate participants, engaged in illegal corporate campaign contributions. (Id.) According to Plaintiffs, the Commission's legal counsel advised the Commission that the debates had been illegally coordinated, staged, planned, and sponsored under Ohio law, and recommended that the Commission find these organizations in violation of the state's campaign finance laws. (Id. at 41.) At the Preliminary Injunction hearing, Philip Richter, legal counsel to the Commission, denied that he ever made this recommendation. To the contrary, he testified that he recommended that the Commission find no violation. In any case, on December 6, 2018, the Commission dismissed Plaintiffs' administrative complaints, finding no violation had occurred. (Id. at 42.)

         On June 15, 2019, Plaintiffs sued the individual Commissioners on Ohio's Elections Commission (“Defendants”) in their official capacity for violating Plaintiffs' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. In Count One, Plaintiffs brought a First Amendment challenge to Ohio Revised Code § 3517.152, which restricts membership on Ohio's Elections Commission to affiliates of the two major political parties. In Counts Two and Three, Plaintiffs alleged Defendants violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by selectively choosing not to enforce Ohio's campaign finance laws and by dismissing their administrative complaints. The Court, however, dismissed Counts Two and Three after finding Plaintiffs lacked standing to assert those claims. (See Doc. 29.)

         Plaintiffs have now filed a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction asking the Court to do the following: (1) declare that O.R.C. § 3517.152 violates the First Amendment; (2) prohibit the state of Ohio from enforcing O.R.C. § 3517.152; (3) direct Defendants to vacate their prior dismissal of Plaintiffs' administrative complaints; (4) direct Defendants to refer Plaintiffs' administrative complaints to a neutral decision-maker; (5) enjoin Defendants, as currently constructed, from considering administrative complaints brought against or on behalf of minor political candidates; and (6) direct Defendants, as currently constructed, to refer administrative complaints brought against or on behalf of minor political parties or their candidates to neutral decision-makers.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Preliminary injunctions are extraordinary remedies which should be granted only if the movant carries his or her burden of proving that the circumstances clearly demand it. See Overstreet v. Lexington-Fayette Urban Cty. Gov't, 305 F.3d 566, 573 (6th Cir. 2002). Whether to grant such relief is a matter within the discretion of the district court. N.A.A.C.P. v. City of Mansfield, Ohio, 866 F.2d 162, 166-67 (6th Cir. 1989). Courts consider four factors when determining whether to grant a request for a preliminary injunction: (1) whether the movant has a strong likelihood of success on the merits; (2) whether the movant would suffer irreparable injury without the injunction; (3) whether the issuance of the injunction would cause substantial harm to others; and (4) whether the public interest would be served by issuance of the injunction. Bonnell v. Lorenzo, 241 F.3d 800, 809 (6th Cir. 2001).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         1. Likelihood of Success on the Me

         rits The first preliminary injunction factor requires the Court to consider Plaintiffs' likelihood of success on the merits of their claim. Here, whether Plaintiffs are entitled to the relief that they request boils down to a single legal question: Does O.R.C. § 3517.152, which restricts membership on Ohio's Elections Commission to affiliates of the two major political parties, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments? Plaintiffs' core argument is that members of the Libertarian Party have a constitutional right to be considered for representation on Ohio's Elections Commission to ensure that the state's election laws are fairly regulated.

         Previously, this Court, relying primarily on the Third Circuit's opinion in Adams v. Governor of Delaware, 922 F.3d 166 (3d Cir. 2019), suggested that to justify the strict construction of O.R.C. § 3517.152, Defendants needed to demonstrate that the statute was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest. (See Doc. 29 at 12-13.) Defendants now cite additional case law and raise new arguments in an effort to distinguish Adams and to establish that rational basis review is the appropriate standard to apply. Alternatively, Defendants contend that even if strict scrutiny review were to apply, O.R.C. ยง 3517.152 is ...


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