Court Strikes Down Loyalty-Oath Codes

Judge Says Requirement for Seat on Political-Party Central Committee Violates Free-Speech Rights

The Superior Court of San Luis Obispo County issued a ruling last week that declares three sections of state election code unconstitutional. The sections, drafted during the McCarthy era and originally meant to weed out communist supporters, required those wishing to become members of a county’s political-party central committee to take and sign a loyalty oath. The ruling says such regulations violate First Amendment rights of free speech.

John Barta of Morro Bay, represented by San Luis Obispo attorneys Stewart Jenkins and Saro Rizzo, brought the case against California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, and S.L.O. county’s clerk-recorder office in November 2011. After a trial on October 28, Judge Martin Tangeman issued his ruling November 1. Both the state and the county tried to have the case thrown out before it went to trial.

As summarized in court filings, Barta’s argument was: “By requiring a loyalty oath as a prerequisite to run for, or be qualified as the winner of, an election to membership on political county central committees, the State is unjustifiably interfering with the members’ free speech rights because it cannot be shown that requiring such an oath is necessary for it to ensure an orderly and fair election process.”

While Barta and his lawyers had asked the court to order Bowen to notify California’s 58 county clerks that they could no longer require loyalty oaths, Tangeman noted in his ruling, “Defendants have conceded the unconstitutionality of the statutes challenged in this case, and have asserted that no injunctive relief is necessary because they will not attempt to enforce an admittedly unconstitutional statute.”

Jenkins, explaining this was the first case to successfully challenge California’s loyalty oaths, said it speaks to the issue that arises when one is asked to swear to uphold the state’s constitution when elements of it may be in conflict with the U.S. Constitution.

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