Court hears loyalty pledge arguments

The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether loyalty pledges required of political party candidates block their ability to run as a candidate for another party.

It could take six weeks or longer for the justices to issue an opinion on the case that stems from Eugene Platt's attempt to run as the Green Party candidate for Charleston County House District 115 in 2008 after he lost the Democratic Party nomination.

Platt had signed an oath with the Democratic Party that the party says precluded him from running against the Democratic nominee in the general election.

But Bryan Sells, senior staff counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, argued Platt had first secured the nomination of the Green Party. Platt was also the nominee for the Working Families Party.

Rep. Anne Peterson Hutto, a Democrat, represents House District 115 and her seat is not in question, although Platt said he will run against her as a Green Party candidate in the general election.

The court's decision would provide clarity in the future when it comes to loyalty pledges and candidates who want to run under more than one party label.

The ACLU is also asking the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., to weigh in. That case is pending.

A state circuit court judge blocked Platt from campaigning in September 2008 and the matter has been tied up in court since then.

Sells said he did not get a chance to fully defend Platt's right to represent the Green Party when the case was before the circuit court. But Chief Justice Jean Toal questioned whether Sells had attempted to raise all his arguments in circuit court or if he was trying to expand his case before the high court for the first time.

Toal said later in the hearing she was concerned that the ACLU on Platt's behalf did not get a chance to make a complete case before the 2008 election.

The basis of Sells' argument was that the loyalty oath is unconstitutional because, in Platt's case, it allowed the Democratic Party to trump the rights of the Green Party.

The oath is a "relic of the white primary system whose purpose was to prevent African-American political participation in the politics of this state," Sells said.

Sells also said the Democratic Party misinterpreted the oath to include candidates that would appear on the ballot for other parties. He said the oath only pertains to petition candidates or write-in candidates.

Truett Nettles, who represented the Charleston County Democratic Party, disagreed. He also noted that Platt voluntarily signed the pledge.

"I do think the state has a great interest in this election process to prevent voter confusion, an excessive number of candidates, factionalism, efficiency and the integrity of the election process," Nettles said.

"I think this burden on Mr. Platt is minimal. He only has to forgo being a candidate for one election cycle and the House gets elected every two years."