Election Code; Trial Court Jurisdiction Over Request for Declaration that County Republican Committee Improperly Ousted Elected Committeeman

Mohn v. Bucks County Republican Committee, 2020 WL 1079247 (Pa. Cmwlth.) (unreported), allocatur granted Dec. 29, 2020, appeal docket 74 MAP 2020

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will consider whether a trial court has jurisdiction over a request for declaratory judgment that declare an individual violated the Pennsylvania Election Code by disqualification for alleged misconduct that did not constitute a prima facie basis for disqualification under the local party rules.

Mohn was elected as a Bucks County Republican Committeeman in May 2014 f0r a two year term. During the April 26, 2016 General Primary Election while finishing that term, he violated local party rules by campaigning against party-endorsed candidates. Mohn was also re-elected in the 2016 election.   In May 2016, the Bucks County Republican Committee (BCRC) ethics committee initiated action to oust him for breaking party rules. Mohn refused to participate and filed a complaint in the trial court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief to prevent his removal as a BCRC Committeeman.

The BCRC removed Mohn from his position. Thereafter, BCRC and Mohn filed cross-motions for summary judgment in Mohn’s trial court action. Mohn, relying on Bentman v. Seventh Ward Democratic Executive Committee, 218 A.2d 261, 264-65 (Pa. 1966), argued that the BCRC could not remove him from office because the alleged conduct occurred before [his] current term of office.” Slip op. at 9 (record citation omitted). The BCRC countered that “[b]ecause Mohn’s removal from office did not implicate a state function under color of statute, his disqualification is a purely intra-party matter and [the trial court] lack[ed] jurisdiction to adjudicate his claims with regard to the propriety of the [BCRC]’s application of its Rules to his conduct in the performance of his Party office. [Bentman].” Slip op. at 10 (record citation omitted). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of BCRC and against Mohn, reasoning in its 1925(a) opinion that it had no authority to “intervene in intra[-]party political association matters regarding the removal of an elected committeeperson.” Slip op. at 10 n.10. Mohn appealed to Commonwealth Court, arguing that the trial court erred in determining that it did not have jurisdiction to grant the requested declaratory and injunctive relief and in granting the BCRC’s cross-motion for summary judgment because BCRC did not have the authority to remove him under the BCRC’s Rules.

The Commonwealth Court majority held that Bentman did not preclude BCRC’s disciplinary action, reasoning:

As the Superior Court has stated:

The holding in Bentman was that the court had jurisdiction to entertain a claim that removal of [the committeemen] pursuant to the [local party rule] violated due process to the extent that the removal bore a relationship to the selection of party nominees for public office. Hence, the highly significant qualification to the holding of Bentman places the instant case outside of its strict application.

Gordon v. Philadelphia County Democratic Executive Committee, 80 A.3d 464, 469 (Pa. Super. 2013), overruled on other grounds, Mohn v. Bucks County Republican Committee, 218 A.3d 927 (Pa. Super. 2019) (emphasis in original). Likewise, in the instant matter, the record demonstrates that Mohn’s removal from office is in no way related to the BCRC’s present selection of party nominees for public office, thereby distinguishing this case from Bentman as well.

Slip op. at 15-16.

In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge McCullough explained that when “a committee removes a committeeperson for conduct that occurred before the committeeperson was duly elected (or reelected) to the term of the political position, Bentman would dictate that this be regarded as state action because it infringes upon the fundamental right to vote and its corollary rights.” Slip op. at PAM-9. Specifically, Judge McCullough reasoned:

In Bentman, our Supreme Court further commented on how the citizens’ fundamental right to vote and place an individual in office to represent them is severely jeopardized, if not infringed, in circumstances remarkably similar to those present here:

The instant controversy, intra-party in nature, presents a basic and fundamental issue in the democratic process and government by representation: whether the electors of a political party have a right, cognizable in a court of law, to choose whom they will to represent them in their party’s organization and councils? [The committeemen], availing themselves of the electoral machinery provided by law for such purpose, received a plurality of the votes cast by members of their own party, in their respective districts, for the party offices of party committeemen to represent such party electors in the party organization and, specifically, in the Executive Committee; the Executive Committee removed them and refused to accord recognition to them as the chosen representatives of the majority of the party electorate in their districts …. The Executive Committee, by its action, ha[d] ignored the fact that these two persons[,] by a majority of the party electors were chosen to represent them, has rendered the electoral process a nullity and a farce [and] has denied the majority of the party electors the right to be represented by persons of their choice ….

Id. at 266.

Against the specific backdrop that committeepersons had been removed for actions taken prior to their election, the Supreme Court also rejected the argument of the Executive Committee, which is the same argument relied upon by the trial court in this case, i.e., that it had the authority under section 812 of the Election Code3 to remove the committeepersons. In this regard, the Supreme Court stated that if it “construe[d] the language of [section 812]—‘control, direction and supervision’—to mean that the Executive Committee thereby is given the authority to refuse recognition to the choice of the party electors in the selection of party committeemen and to refuse to allow them to act as party committeemen,” then the court would “reach a result [that is] patently absurd and unreasonable,” i.e., the Executive Committee would be allowed “to nullify and ignore, without legal cause, the results of [the] election and selection of party committeemen.” Bentman, 218 A.2d at 267 (emphasis added). The Supreme Court then concluded that its reading of the words “control, direction and supervision” in the context of the Election Code as a whole establishes that [t]he dominant idea pervading the entire statute is the absolute assurance to the citizen that his wish as to the conduct of the affairs of his party may be expressed through his ballot, and thus given effect, whether it be in accord with the wishes of the leaders of his party or not, and that thus shall be put in effective operation, in the primaries, the underlying principle of democracy, which makes the will of an unfettered majority controlling. In other words, the scheme is to permit the voters to construct the organization from the bottom upwards, instead of permitting leaders to construct it from the top downwards.

Id. at 267 (quoting People ex rel. Coffey v. Democratic General Committee, 58 N.E. 124, 126 (N.Y. Ct. App. 1900)).

From this line of reasoning, the Supreme Court in Bentman departed with the case law from yore in unequivocal words:

Inasmuch as the legislature has seen fit to impose on political party organization certain duties which bear a direct and substantial relationship to the selection of public officials by the electoral process the complete privacy in nature of party organization recognized by our courts in the past no longer exists. The assumption of such obligations by party organizations has marked the entry by such party organizations into an area of public activity which renders their activities in such area amenable to judicial supervision.

Id. at 269 (emphasis added).

Applying Bentman here, to conclude that the trial court in this case did not possess jurisdiction to entertain Mohn’s declaratory judgment claims would ignore the Court’s entire discourse regarding Constitutional limitations on state action. The majority asserts that Bentman is inapplicable because, in that case, the committeepersons were removed at a time when the committee was in the process of selecting an individual to fill a vacancy in a political office, while there was no such vacancy pending here. (Maj. slip op. at 15 & n.15.) However, such a narrow reading of Bentman renders its analysis superfluous.

Slip op. at PAM-5 – PAM-8. Thus, while Judge McCullough concurred with the majority “that intra-party political matters remain within the domain of the political party itself,” she dissented on the basis of the majority’s application of Bentman, concluding:

there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether “the right of the party electors, as individuals, to choose their representatives” under Bentman outweighs “the right of the party as an association to identify the people who constitute the association and to limit the association to those people only.” In re Nomination Petitions of Kielstock, 473 A.2d at 716. At the very least, the case is not clear and free from doubt, especially considering that the Committee Rule is not written in a manner as to impose “prospective” discipline in the future for past conduct, and the trial court granted summary judgment prematurely. As such, I cannot subscribe to the majority’s affirmance of the trial court on an alternative rationale.

Slip op. at PAM-12 – PAM-13.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider:

Under Bentman v. Seventh Ward Democratic Executive Committee, 218 A.2d 261 (Pa. 1966), did the trial court have jurisdiction to declare that [Respondent] violated the Pennsylvania Election Code by disqualifying a duly elected Republican Committeeman for alleged misconduct that did not constitute a prima facie basis for disqualification under the local party rules?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.