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Hoekstra: Conyers ruling not an "I told you so" moment

Rep. John Conyers

Rep. John Conyers

It would be most satisfying to say “I told you so” after a federal judge ordered U.S. Rep. John Conyers back on the Aug. 5 primary ballot, validating my prediction.

However, the reaction from the anti-Conyers crowd tells me quite clearly that this is not an “I told you so” moment.

This crowd was quick to cheer Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson when she doubled down on the Wayne County Clerk’s determination that Conyers’ ineligible petition circulators invalidated more than 640 voter signatures.

Secretary Johnson rightly asserted her role in adhering to state law regarding the election process. That role does not call for Johnson to judge whether state law violates the constitutional rights of the people rounded up during that process.

But she did help with the latter. Johnson admitted that if those petition circulators were properly registered to vote, Conyers would have enough valid voter signatures to make the ballot.

That ammunition went straight into the order released by U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman just hours later, which trumped Johnson and the state law:

“As Secretary Johnson implicitly acknowledged in her ruling issued today, if the signatures excluded pursuant to the Registration Statute may not be excluded from Mr. Conyers’ total – and this Court holds that they may not be – then Mr. Conyers has enough signatures to qualify for placement on the ballot. He shall be placed on the ballot.”

Justice Leitman is now presumably just dotting the i’s and crossing t’s on his opinion in the ACLU of Michigan  lawsuit filed on behalf of two petition circulators and a registered voter. With scads of precedent to draw from including theU.S. Supreme Court,, Appeals Court, and a successful challenge of the same state law on the same grounds in 2008, there is little reason to think he will change his mind.

“Plaintiffs here have shown a substantial likelihood of success,” Leitman writes, citing a 2008 U.S. Appeals Court decision that disqualifying signatures collected by non-registered voters limits the First Amendment rights of a federal candidate. In this case, Leitman argues that Michigan law severely burdens not only Conyers’ First Amendment rights, but the petition circulators and most importantly, voters.

In fact, the most important plaintiff in this case is a woman named Edna Moore, not Conyers. Moore is simply a citizen who wants her signature counted, because she wants to vote for Conyers in August. Judge Leitman said her intent to vote gives her the right to challenge the Registration Statute.

The victory so far is really Ms. Moore’s, and by extension all of ours, but Conyers’ critics see it as his win alone. That sent the anti-Conyers crowd into virtual orbit, starting with strident accusations of judicial activism by an Obama appointee.

Conservative Twitter watchdog website Twitchy compiled Conyers-related tweets with “‘The fix was in’: Activist judge puts disqualified Rep. John Conyers on primary ballot.”

And upset Facebook pundits said things like, “Don’t ya just love it when one of Obama’s activist left-wing appointee’s (sic) to the Federal Bench says “sure, go ahead and break the law — see if I care.”

True, President Barack Obama nominated Justice Leitman to the U.S. District Court. The U.S. Senate confirmed him 98-0.

But where were the cries of judicial activism in 2008 when Grand Rapids-based U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell said the same thing about the same state law on behalf of a voter just like Moore, who just wanted her name to count on a petition to recall Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon? Do the crickets chirping in that case mean Bell, a Reagan-appointed judge, gets a pass when delivering the same opinion we’re likely to get from Leitman?

Another hollow grenade being tossed around is that Conyers has been in office long enough to know the rules, and only has problem with law when he fails to abide by it. Well, this is apparently the first time the problematic law has been problematic for him. As Leitman wrote, “While he may have known about the Registration Statute for some time, he had no reason to file this action until the statute was invoked against him.”

Finally, there’s the outrage that the U.S. Constitution would dare to trump a state law. If the state law dares to restrict the basic, Constitutionally guaranteed civil right to participate in the political process, then a federal judge charged with protecting that very right is obligated under the 14th amendment, and the Supremacy Clause of Article VI to invalidate the state law.

Judge Bell did this in 2008 when he declared the state law’s registration requirements abridge voters’ rights to petition their own government.

An inability to get around that argument even drew one hilarious Facebook remark that “(t)he 14th Amendment needs to be repealed.”

The problem with the anti-Conyers crowd is that they cannot get past Conyers the man. They don’t like his politics, his votes, his demeanor, his wife, his tenure — you name it.

But the truth is that this entire debate is not about Conyers the man.  He is actually the least relevant variable in this equation. As was Andy Dillon in 2008.

Should Judge Leitman sign off on his opinion, as expected, we should all cheer the most important victory — that of voters. We have Constitutionally-protected freedoms of speech and association which allow us to participate in the election process, no matter how much we love or abhor a candidate.