On Appeal From the United States District Court For the District of New Jersey
(D.C. Civil Action No. 97-cv-01966)
BEFORE: STAPLETON, SCIRICA and McKEE, Circuit Judges
This appeal requires us to review the district court's denial of preliminary injunctive relief. The district court concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims and found that they would be irreparably harmed in the absence of preliminary relief. However, the court also found that the defendant would be harmed even more severely were preliminary relief to be granted and that the public interest disfavored such relief. Although our standard of review is quite deferential, we will reverse the district court. We conclude that the district court clearly erred in finding that preliminary injunctive relief would inject confusion and disarray into New Jersey's 1997 electoral process and that the court abused its discretion in denying plaintiffs preliminary relief.
There are multiple plaintiffs in this case. The Council of Alternative Political Parties is an unincorporated association representing five New Jersey "alternative political parties:" the Green Party, the Natural Law Party, the Conservative Party, the Libertarian Party, and the U.S. Taxpayers Party. *fn1 Each of thesefive alternative political parties is also a plaintiff. In addition, there are twenty-seven individual plaintiffs, all of whom are either candidates desiring to run for state office as nominees of these alternative parties or are supporters of these parties. Some of the plaintiff candidates have qualified for a place on the November 4, 1997 general election ballot while others have tried to do so but failed.
Plaintiffs initiated this action on April 8, 1997. In it they challenge the constitutionality of N.J. Stat. Ann. Section(s) 19:13-9, which requires all candidates seeking placement on New Jersey's general election ballot to file nominating petitions no later than 54 days prior to the primary election. Valid nominating petitions must be signed by a number of registered voters specified by law. The number of signatures required depends on the office being sought. For example, alternative party candidates for governor must file petitions signed by at least 800 registered voters. See N.J. Stat. Ann. Section(s) 19:13-5. Only 100 signatures are required for alternative party candidates for State Senate; candidates for the General Assembly who file joint petitions need collect just 50 signatures. See id. Alternative political parties may only nominate candidates through the petition procedure. See N.J. Stat. Ann. Section(s) 19:13-1.
In accordance with state law, the primary election this year was held on June 3, 1997. See N.J. Stat. Ann. Section(s) 19:2-1. Nominating petitions and signatures had to befiled with defendant, the Secretary of State, no later than 54 days prior to this date, which was April 10, 1997. Plaintiffs contend that the April filing date imposes an unconstitutional burden on their right of free association, right to vote, and right to equal protection of the laws.
The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the Secretary from refusing to accept their nominating petitions if submitted on or before July 28, 1997. In effect, they sought an extension--for candidates of alternative political parties--of the deadline for collecting signatures and filing nominating petitions. The date July 28, 1997 was not chosen at random. It is the 99th day preceding the general election and is, therefore, the date that nominating petitions for alternative party candidates for president would be due if this were a presidential election year. See N.J. Stat. Ann. Section(s) 19:13-9.
On June 16 the district court held a hearing on the plaintiffs' motion and then denied them relief. The court found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that New Jersey's April filing deadline imposes an unconstitutional burden on the rights of alternative political parties, their candidates, and voters who might support them. It also found that, without a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs would suffer irreparable harm, because they would be unable to fully exercise their voting and associational rights. However, the court also declared that granting preliminary relief at this late date would inject disorder and disarray into the electoral process and unduly interfere with the November 1997 general election. Hence, the court concluded that the Secretary would be more harmed from entry of a preliminary injunction than the plaintiffs would be from denial of relief. It also believed the public interest in a fair and orderly 1997 election disfavored granting plaintiffs relief.
Plaintiffs filed a timely notice of appeal and sought expedited review and an injunction pending appeal. We expedited the appeal and heard oral argument on July 21. That same day we entered an order reversing the district court and directing it to enter a preliminary injunction enjoining the Secretary from refusing to accept nominating petitions submitted by named candidate plaintiffs and candidates of the plaintiff ...