24TH SENATORIAL DIST. REPUBLICAN COMM. V. ALCORN, NO. 15-1478

Decided: April 19, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ and plaintiff-intervenor’s complaints, as the Committee lacked standing to bring the suit.

The Republican Party of Virginia (the “Party”) is governed pursuant to its Plan of Organization (the “Plan”).  According to the Plan, Legislative District Committees (“LDCs”) are unincorporated associations designated pursuant to the Plan that “determine whether candidates for Legislative District public office shall be nominated by Mass Meeting, Party Canvass, Convention or Primary, where permitted to do so under Virginia Law.”  The 24th Senatorial District Republican Committee of Virginia is the LDC responsible for determining the method of nomination for candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the 24th Senatorial District for the Virginia General Assembly.  In December 2014, the Committee exercised its authority under the Plan and adopted a resolution designating a convention as the method of nominating the Republican candidate for the 24th Senate District seat in the 2015 election.  On February 23, 2015, incumbent state senator Emmett Hanger relied on the authority granted him by the Incumbent Protection Act and designated a primary as the method of nomination.  The Committee subsequently filed suit against the members of the Virginia State Board of Elections and the Virginia Department of Elections seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  The Committee’s complaint alleged that the Act infringes on its First Amendment right to freedom of association by preventing it from determining the method of nomination in contravention of the terms of the Plan.  Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court granted, holding that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to establish standing.

The record before the district court was sufficient to decide the jurisdictional question.  Not only did the record contain the complete Party Plan, the district court undertook a thorough and exacting review of it.  Moreover, the Committee and the Commonwealth both clearly represented to the district court that there were no issues of disputed fact.  Therefore, because the proper construction of the Plan is a question of law and the record before the district court was sufficient, the Court concluded that jurisdictional discovery was not necessary.  Whether the Committee has standing depends on whether its alleged injury was the result of the Act or a lawful and voluntary decision on behalf of the Party.  The Court held that the Party limited its authority to determine unilaterally the method of nomination through its adopting of the Party Plan, which reads, “The Legislative District Committee shall determine whether candidates for Legislative District public office shall be nominated by Mass Meeting, Party Canvass, Convention or Primary, where permitted to do so under Virginia Law.”  If the Party had intended to preserve its ability to unilaterally choose the method of nomination for legislative districts, it could have done so.  Thus, the Plan delegates to the Committee the authority to determine the nomination method unless Virginia law otherwise limits that authority.  Where Virginia law sets forth an alternative method of nomination, the Plan does not give the Committee the authority to supersede or challenge that determination.

The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the district court’s holding that the Committee lacked standing to bring the suit.

Full Opinion

Katie E. Lowery

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