BY HUGO TORRES
On September 17th, Professor Laurence Tribe stood before the Florida Supreme Court, delivering arguments in a case that could have a significant impact on the presidential election. In a 6-1 ruling delivered the same day, the Florida Supreme Court rejected arguments that Nader had not met the requirements to be the candidate of the Reform party.
Theresa Amato, Ralph Nader’s campaign manager, blasted Tribe for his involvement in efforts to keep Nader off the ballot. “It was shameful,” Amato said. In an interview with the Record, Amato also attacked the Democrats for such tactics, alleging that arguments to keep Nader off the ballot hinged entirely on “ambiguities and hyper-technicalities.”
“It is an example of the lengths the Democrats will go to get Ralph Nader off the ballot,” said Amato.
Tribe defended his involvement, pointing out that Nader’s participation went against the very ideals which Nader had trumpeted for his entire career. “I believe that Nader, with whom I have worked in the past and whom I admire greatly for his lifetime of devotion and accomplishment in the fields of consumer safety, environmental protection, and corporate responsibility, is unfortunately responsible for the fact that Bush rather than Gore became the 43rd President,” said Tribe. As such, Tribe alleges that Nader bears some responsibility for “the enormous setbacks that presidency continues to bring with respect to human rights, civil liberties, the physical environment, the place of America in the world, and even the prospects for effectively combatting international terrorism, which I believe has been spawned by what the Bush Administration has done in Iraq more rapidly than it has been controlled by what the Administration has done either abroad or at home.”
Tribe alleges that Nader’s decision to run is based more on ego than on a desire to improve the country. “For Nader to use the ballot box in states like Florida as a pulpit for his views, however progressive and enlightened some of those views may be, seems to me an inexcusable indulgence and a grave abuse of the electoral process,” said Tribe.
“It is an abuse that Ralph Nader is perpetrating at incalculable human and ecological cost, and one that, among its many tragic consequences, risks fully erasing the great legacy that Nader would otherwise have left in his wake.”
This is not the first time Professor Tribe has argued an important case stemming from Florida and impacting a presidential election. In 2000, Tribe represented Vice President Al Gore before the United States Supreme Court over the issue of whether ballots should be recounted in Florida. Many believe Nader was responsible for Gore’s loss during the 2000 election, when Gore lost Florida by 537 votes. Nader garnered 97,000 votes in Florida during the 2000 election, votes which some believe would have gone to Gore.
The challenge against Nader this year centered around the question of whether the Reform party properly nominated Nader to be its candidate. Florida law allows ballot access to national parties that have conventions to nominate a candidate. Tribe and others challenged the legitimacy of reorganizing the Reform party as a national party, since it nominated Nader via a conference call and has only $18 in its bank account.
Tribe noted that the constitution of the Reform Party itself has a similar provision requiring that its candidate be chosen at a national convention. Thus, party officials failed to follow Florida law and its own internal regulations. “Without amending that provision, the party’s leaders simply announced that they would make the nomination for 2004 in a conference call among a select set of members of the party’s national committee,” said Tribe. “The party did so in a phone conference on May 11, 2004. It then publicly announced that it had nominated Nader for president, and he formally accepted the nomination.”
Tribe notes that even the Nader campaign realized this would not be enough. Tribe points to Nader’s subsequent behavior as evidence of this. “When Nader was advised by lawyers that a telephone call (the modern equivalent of a smoke-filled room) obviously would not satisfy Florida law,” the Nader campaign, according to Tribe, scrambled to be in compliance. “Nader and the two people running what’s left of the Reform Party hastily arranged for a “business session” of selected members to be convened in a hotel room in a town near the Dallas airport, where his nomination was officially “certified” (a concept to be found neither in Florida law nor in the Reform Party’s Constitution) in a voice vote on which no one was permitted to vote ‘no,'” said Tribe.
The Nader campaign questioned whether the case was about the law or whether it was about making sure only Nader remained off the ballot. “There are twenty-three registered parties [in Florida], [and] six made it to the Secretary of State,” said Amato. “The only one challenged was the Reform Party.” Furthermore, Amato found preposterous the notion that to be a convention people had to meet in person and not on the phone, noting that such requirements were not in the text of the statute at issue.
Amato also noted that the Nader campaign has been specifically targeted in other states, with Nader being largely successful in defending his access to the ballot.
Opposing counsel was no stranger to such contests: Kenneth Sukhia, representing the Nader team, assisted the legal counsel team of George W. Bush in 2000. This has led some Democrats to allege collusion between the Bush campaign and the Nader campaign, a charge Amato denies.
Amato explained that the Nader campaign at first sought the help of the ACLU and other legal groups, who declined to get involved. Amato said the Nader campaign then sought out to hire a lawyer specializing in Florida election law and found Sukhia. “We paid for him,” said Amato of Sukhia, who handled military ballot cases in the 2000 election. According to Amato, the Bush campaign neither funded the Nader campaign nor supplied any assistance in defending the case in court.
Tribe also denied being funded by outsideparties, specifying that neither the Democrats nor the Kerry campaign paid his way. “I was not paid anything for my involvement. I handled the case pro bono, and I had to find a way to get from Boston to Tallahassee by going through the path of Hurricane Ivan, partly by plane and partly by car. It was an adventure I recommend only to the foolhardy,” said Tribe.
The Nader campaign applauded the court’s ruling, which Democrats have decided not to appeal. “We’re very pleased that the Florida Supreme Court saw the issue our way,” said Amato.
Tribe, however, remains skeptical that justice was served. “In my view, the Florida Supreme Court did not honestly come to grips with any of this. Only the trial court, the dissenting justice, and the concurring justice even discussed the heart of the legal problem with the Nader candidacy,” said Tribe.
“In effect, the Florida Supreme Court was completely and unjustifiably spooked by its experience in 2000 in Bush v. Palm Beach County and Bush v. Gore and by the unjustified accusations of partisanship on its part in the 2000 election, so it overcompensated by being truly political, in the worst sense, this time around.”