May 23, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Federal judge orders Conyers back on Aug. 5 ballot

Conyers (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Detroit — A federal judge threw U.S. Rep. John Conyers a political lifeline Friday, ordering the Detroit Democrat onto the Aug. 5 primary ballot because his lawsuit to overturn a Michigan election law is likely to succeed.

Judge Matthew Leitman’s ruling allowing Conyers to join challenger Horace Sheffield on the primary ballot capped a whirlwind day for the longest-serving African-American in Congress, as he seeks a 26th term in office. A report released earlier Friday by Secretary of State Ruth Johnson agreed with Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett that Conyers was ineligible to run and found he fell more than 540 signatures short of the 1,000 needed to qualify for the ballot.

But Leitman, in a 22-page ruling, said Conyers and two petition circulators whose signatures were disqualified have a “substantial likelihood of success” in showing Michigan’s requirement for circulators to be registered voters law is unconstitutional and ordered Conyers on the ballot “because time is of the essence.”

The order helps “provide any party who may wish to appeal as much time as possible in which to do so” and gives the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals the most time possible to review an appeal, Leitman wrote.

Leitman relied on Johnson’s report that showed Conyers would have more than the required 1,000 signatures if the voter registration requirement for petition circulators were struck down. He ordered Johnson and Garrett to provide “any certification and/or determination” by no later than 5 p.m. Thursday so Conyers gets placed on the ballot.

The decision was hailed by Conyers’ campaign and other parties in the consolidated case.

“Judge (Leitman’s) decision affirms that all should have equal entry and access to the political process,” Conyers said in a statement. “I am thankful that we now have an opportunity to have a more vigorous discussion about the issues that affect us all. I always felt that democracy would win.”

The ruling is not only a victory for Conyers “but for the voters to give him the opportunity to become the first African-American dean of Congress,” said Conyers campaign spokesman Ron Scott.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan called it a win for free speech.

“Judge Leitman’s wise decision is not just a victory for Congressman Conyers, it’s a victory for all who wish to engage in political speech free of unnecessary government restrictions,” said Michael Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan’s legal director.

A legal challenge could be forthcoming; the secretary of state and the Sheffield campaign are exploring their options. A decision is not expected until next week, officials said.

“What I can tell you is that the secretary is sworn to uphold the law, and that’s what she has done in this case and will continue to do,” said Johnson spokeswoman Gisgie Dávila Gendreau.

Added Sheffield campaign manager Rick Jones: “What we’re going to do is let the attorneys look at it ..., but it doesn’t stop anything as far as our approach to the campaign. We’re moving forward.”

Earlier Friday, Johnson found Conyers had 455 valid signatures — almost 140 fewer than Garrett recorded last week when she threw the congressman off the ballot. Garrett disqualified hundreds of signatures for Conyers’ candidacy because of voter registration problems with his circulators.

But Leitman indicated Michigan’s law runs counter to a 2008 6th Circuit opinion that ruled a similar Ohio law violated speech rights for political candidates.

Like in the 2008 case, “plaintiff suffered a serious limitation on his First Amendment rights,” the judge wrote about the Conyers’ case.

Striking the registered voter requirement won’t hurt the state because the Legislature eliminated the registration requirement for ballot initiatives and statewide candidates who have no party affiliation in a law that went into effect April 3, Leitman said.

“The state’s interest in combatting election fraud is compelling, but the state may protect that interest through a less restrictive means,” he wrote.

Conyers, 85, appealed to Johnson that bureaucratic bungling by the Detroit clerk and Secretary of State’s offices led to his circulators’ voter registration problems.

But the Secretary of State rejected those arguments.

Johnson invalidated signatures from five petition circulators who “are registered to vote yet failed to disclose the correct name of the jurisdiction in which they are registered.” It resulted in the elimination of about 398 signatures that were deemed valid following Garrett’s initial review.

This included Chinita Terry of Detroit, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit who said she had changed her mailing address to Oak Park so her mail wouldn’t be stolen in Detroit, but still wanted to vote in Detroit. She also claimed she turned in voter registration documents for two other circulators.

But Johnson noted that when Terry changed her mailing address, she signed a statement saying, “I authorize cancellation of any previous registration.” The report also said Terry has changed her voting registration address seven times in the past seven years.

“Terry is well aware of the process for effectuating a change in address for voting purposes, having frequently availed herself of it on numerous occasions,” according to Johnson’s report. “... Terry knowingly registered to vote in Oak Park and therefore could not claim to be registered at the Detroit address while circulating Conyers’ petition.”

Johnson also disqualified signatures from circulators Daniel Pennington, Tiara Willis-Pittman and Alex Canty of Detroit because they were not registered voters when they gathered signatures. Garrett’s initial review determined 367 of their signatures were valid before the voter registration problem disqualified them.

Canty has never been registered to vote in Michigan, according to Johnson.

The report said Pennington, a fugitive wanted by law enforcement, and Willis-Pittman, another plaintiff in the ACLU suit, could not prove they registered to vote in December. It noted inconsistencies in their statements and sided with the Detroit clerk’s finding that no voter registration documentation existed for the two prior to April 28 — after the signatures were due.

The judge said Terry and Willis-Pittman’s problems resulted from “good-faith mistakes.” There was no evidence of fraud, a Johnson spokeswoman said.

Less than two weeks remain until the June 6 deadline when Johnson must certify candidates for the ballot.

dnichols@detroitnews.com