The Third Party Debate Lawsuit Was Just Rejected

“Libertarian” presidential candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein received bad news on Friday when Federal Judge Rosemary Collyer threw out their lawsuit aimed at entering the general election’s presidential debates this fall.

Johnson (former Governor of New Mexico) and Stein (physician) sued the Commission on Presidential Debates after both “failed to receive invitations to the privately-sponsored presidential debates in 2012”. The Commission offers invitations to candidates who are constitutionally eligible, have secured the necessary ballot access, and are garnering at least 15 percent support in public polling prior to the election.

The complaint, filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, alleges that the Republican and Democratic parties, along with their respective candidates in 2012, “conspired to restrain commerce; monopolize; violate the campaigns rights to free speech; and intentionally interfere with prospective economic advantage and relations.” Together, these four complaints amount to one: The Republicans and Democrats have conspired to ensure that no third party candidate can get on the debate stage and benefit from the free media exposure that such a debate provides.

The Court rejected this line of reasoning because the allegation was “wholly speculative and dependent entirely on media coverage decisions.” As such, the Court ruled that Dr. Stein and Governor Johnson did not have standing, as they could not prove that they were actually hurt electorally by absence from the debates. Essentially, if the Commission were to allow Dr. Stein and Governor Johnson onto the debate stage, they would have to allow all declared presidential candidates onto the stage, at which point the debate would be such a circus that ratings would plummet and the media wouldn’t broadcast them because viewers wouldn’t be tuning in.

Since January 1, 2016, 367 candidates have filed a Statement of Candidacy with the FEC, naming themselves as a presidential candidate. Now, we can reasonably conclude that not all of these 367 would want a spot on stage. However, if only 5 percent of those 367 did claim such a spot, our general election would be returned to the 17 candidate circus of the Republican primary.

Regardless, this attempt at a national breakthrough has failed. Judge Collyer did a great service to herself and to the two candidates by offering an opinion solely on the merits of their claims, when she could have been far more scathing.

A footnote in the Court’s opinion notes that Ross Perot, a third party candidate, did break the 15 percent threshold and was allowed onto the debate stage, which the plaintiffs (Johnson and Stein) claim was part of the broader conspiracy. It’s at this point that the absurdity of the complaint becomes vividly apparent, and will hopefully fade into memory for the dignity of both individuals.

Kevin Dawson is Operations Manager for the American Principles Project.