JOSEPH N. LAPLANTE, District Judge.
Fred Hollander, proceeding pro se, brings this action challenging Senator John McCain's eligibility to serve as President of the United States. Hollander claims that McCain, by virtue of his birth in the Panama Canal Zone—albeit to American parents—is not a "natural born Citizen" eligible to hold the office of President under Article II, § 1 of the Constitution.
Though McCain and his co-defendant, the Republican National Committee ("RNC"), vigorously dispute this claim, they argue that this court cannot decide it in any event due to a number of jurisdictional defects: lack of standing and ripeness, mootness, and nonjusticiability. The defendants also argue that Hollander has failed to state a claim for relief because (1) they are not state actors, so Hollander cannot maintain any constitutional claim against them and (2) in any event, any remedy for it would necessarily violate their own First Amendment rights.
Applicable Legal Standard
A court faced with a challenge to standing at the pleading stage, as here, must "accept as true all material allegations of the complaint, and ... construe the complaint in favor of the complaining party." Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975). Hollander's pro se complaint, furthermore, must be construed liberally, "held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106, 97 S.Ct. 285, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (internal quotation marks omitted). Yet even these standards do not require the court to credit "[e]mpirically unverifiable conclusions, not logically compelled, or at least supported, by the stated facts" in the complaint. Sea Shore Corp. v. Sullivan, 158 F.3d 51, 54 (1st Cir.1998) (internal quotation marks omitted); Ahmed v. Rosenblatt, 118 F.3d 886, 890 (1st Cir. 1997).
McCain was born, in 1936, at the Coco Solo Naval Air Station, a United States military installation in the Panama Canal Zone.
Yet the Constitution provides that "No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President." U.S. Const., art. II, § 1, cl. 4 (emphasis added). The phrase "natural born Citizen" is not defined in the Constitution, see Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 167, 21 Wall. 162, 22 L.Ed. 627 (1875), nor does it appear anywhere else in the document, see Charles Gordon, Who Can Be President of the United States: An Unresolved Enigma, 28 Md. L. Rev. 1, 5 (1968). The phrase has thus spawned a largely academic controversy over whether it excludes those citizens who' acquired that
The question has taken on a real-world dimension, however, during the occasional presidential candidacies of politicians born abroad: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr., who was born to American parents in Canada, see Warren Freedman, Presidential Timber: Foreign Born Children of American Parents, 35 Cornell L.Q. 357 n. 2 (1950); George Romney (father to McCain's one-time opponent in the recent Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney), who was born to American parents in Mexico, see Gordon, supra, at 1; and, now, McCain, see, e.g., Chin, supra, at 3-4. In McCain's case, the question also takes on an additional layer of complication due to his birth in the Panama Canal Zone.
Those born "in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof," U.S. Const., amend. XIV, have been considered American citizens under American law in effect since the time of the founding, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649, 674-75, 18 S.Ct. 456, 42 L.Ed. 890 (1898), and thus eligible for the presidency, see, e.g., Schneider v. Rusk, 377 U.S. 163, 165, 84 S.Ct. 1187, 12 L.Ed.2d 218 (1964) (dicta). So the defendants say that, apart from McCain's citizenship by parentage, he can be President because "he was born within the sovereign territory of the United States," namely, the Canal Zone, over which they argue the United States was exercising the powers of a sovereign at the time of McCain's birth, under the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Convention. See Convention between the United States and the Republic of Panama for the Construction of a Ship Canal to Connect the Waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, U.S.-Pan., art. III, Nov. 18, 1903, 33 Stat. 2234, 2235. The Supreme Court, however, has made contradictory comments in dicta on the status of the Canal Zone. Compare O'Connor v. United States, 479 U.S. 27, 28, 107 S.Ct. 347, 93 L.Ed.2d 206 (1986) (observing that the United States exercised sovereignty over the Canal Zone under the Convention) with Vermilya-Brown Co. v. Connell, 335 U.S. 377, 381, 69 S.Ct. 140, 93 L.Ed. 76 (1948) (observing that the United States has no sovereignty there).
Hollander claims, due to what he calls McCain's "unequivocal ineligibil[ity]" for the Presidency, that the RNC "should not be permitted to nominate him.... This would lead to the disenfranchisement of [Hollander] and 100 million additional voters" in the general presidential election. Hollander, in fact, claims that he has already suffered disenfranchisement in the 2008 New Hampshire Republican primary, because it resulted in the allocation of delegates to the Republican National Convention
As a result, Hollander says, his vote in the New Hampshire primary, and those of others participating in primary elections in which McCain appeared on the ballot, "will count less than [the votes of] those who voted in other parties' primary elections," which led to the allocation of votes to a constitutionally eligible Presidential candidate. Hollander adds that the defendants are responsible for this disenfranchisement because McCain ran in the New Hampshire primary "under false pretenses" to his eligibility for the Presidency, while the RNC "authorized" him to do so. To remedy his claimed disenfranchisement in the New Hampshire Republican primary, and to prevent his further claimed disenfranchisement in the general election, Hollander requests: (1) a declaratory judgment that McCain is ineligible for the Presidency, (2) an injunction requiring McCain to withdraw his candidacy, and (3) an injunction requiring the RNC to reallocate the delegates awarded to McCain as the result of the New Hampshire primary and others, and to nominate another candidate.
As previously mentioned, the defendants argue that Hollander lacks standing to maintain this lawsuit. "Article III of the Constitution limits the `judicial power' of the United States to the resolution of `cases' and `controversies'.... As an incident to the elaboration of this bedrock requirement, [the Supreme] Court has always required that a litigant have `standing' to challenge the action sought to be adjudicated in the lawsuit." Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Ams. United for Separation of Church & State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 471, 102 S.Ct. 752, 70 L.Ed.2d 700 (1982). So-called "Article III standing" has three requirements: (1) the plaintiff has suffered "an injury in fact," (2) that injury bears a causal connection to the defendant's challenged conduct, and (3) a favorable judicial decision will likely provide the plaintiff with redress from that injury. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61, 112 S.Ct. 2130, 119 L.Ed.2d 351 (1992). The party bringing the claim—Hollander here—bears the burden to show his or her standing to bring it. Elk Grove Unified Sch. Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1, 12, 124 S.Ct. 2301, 159 L.Ed.2d 98 (2004).
Based on these principles, the Supreme Court has "consistently held that a plaintiff raising only a generally available grievance about government—claiming only harm to his and every citizen's interest in proper application of the Constitution and laws, and seeking relief that no more directly and tangibly benefits him than it does the public at large—does not state an Article III case or controversy." Lujan, 504 U.S. at 573-74, 112 S.Ct. 2130. These holdings include Schlesinger v. Reservists Committee to Stop the War, 418 U.S. 208, 94 S.Ct. 2925, 41 L.Ed.2d 706 (1974), where the Court ruled that a group of citizens lacked standing to litigate the eligibility, under the Incompatibility Clause,
Id. at 217, 94 S.Ct. 2925 (footnote omitted). The Court went on to hold "that standing to sue may not be predicated upon an interest of the kind alleged here which is held in common by all members of the public, because of the necessarily abstract nature of the injury all citizens share." Id. at 229, 94 S.Ct. 2925.
Schlesinger makes clear, then, that Hollander does not have standing based on the harm he would suffer should McCain be elected President despite his alleged lack of eligibility under Art. II, § 1, cl. 4. That harm, "standing alone, would adversely affect only the generalized interest of all citizens in constitutional governance." 418 U.S. at 217, 94 S.Ct. 2925; see also Ex parte Levitt, 302 U.S. 633, 634, 58 S.Ct. 1, 82 L.Ed. 493 (1937) (ruling that citizen lacked standing to challenge appointment of Hugo Black to the Court under the Ineligibility Clause based on his membership in Congress when it enacted a new judicial pension plan).
Hollander, however, argues that the harm to him from McCain's candidacy transcends simply the right to be governed by a constitutionally qualified President; Hollander claims it also impacts his right to vote, both in the New Hampshire Republican Primary and the general election. This is a difficult theory to understand, but it appears to rest on the premise that McCain's mere status as a presidential candidate or party nominee somehow interferes with the electoral franchise of voters like Hollander who consider McCain ineligible for the office. Presumably, those voters are empowered to address that concern on their own by voting for a different presidential candidate, whose eligibility is unimpeachable. The presence of some allegedly ineligible candidate on the ballot would not seem to impair that right in the least, no matter how that candidate performs in the election.
To be sure, courts have held that a candidate or his political party has standing to challenge the inclusion of an allegedly ineligible rival on the ballot, on the theory that doing so hurts the candidate's or party's own chances of prevailing in the election. See, e.g., Tex. Bern. Party v. Benkiser, 459 F.3d 582, 586-87 & n. 4 (5th Cir.2006); Schulz v. Williams, 44 F.3d 48, 53 (2d Cir.1994); Fulani v. Hogsett, 917 F.2d 1028, 1030 (7th Cir.1990). But that notion of "competitive standing" has never been extended to voters challenging the eligibility of a particular candidate. See Gottlieb v. Fed. Elec. Comm'n, 143 F.3d 618, 622 (D.C.Cir.1998).
In Gottlieb, the court drew a distinction between voters' claims over the allegedly illegal exclusion of their preferred candidate and the allegedly illegal inclusion of a rival candidate. Id. While
In addition to Gottlieb, "[s]everal other Circuit Courts have also concluded that a voter fails to present an injury-in-fact when the alleged harm ... is only derivative of a harm experienced by a candidate." Crist v. Comm'n on Pres. Debates, 262 F.3d 193, 195 (2d Cir.2001) (per curiam). One of those courts was the First Circuit in Becker v. Federal Election Commission, 230 F.3d 381 (1st Cir.2000). There, both presidential candidate Ralph Nader and a group of voters challenged the corporate sponsorship of presidential debates. Id. at 383-84. Nader alleged that, in light of "his principled stand against accepting corporate contributions," he could not participate in these debates, placing him at a competitive disadvantage to his campaign rivals, who harbored no such qualms. Id. at 386. The court of appeals ruled that this conferred standing on Nader, but not on the voters. Id. at 389-90.
In rejecting the voters' standing, the court reasoned:
Id. at 390 (citations omitted). That reasoning applies with equal force here. McCain's candidacy for the presidency, whatever his eligibility, is "hardly a restriction on voters' rights" because it in no way prevents them from voting for somebody else. In fact, Hollander alleges that he did just that in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
That Hollander's chosen candidate lost despite McCain's alleged ineligibility does not, as Hollander asserts, mean that his vote "count[ed] less" than, say, those cast in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which presumably gave voters a choice among constitutionally qualified candidates only.
Hollander also argues that he "would again be disenfranchised should he vote for McCain in the general election and then McCain should be subsequently, removed due to his lack of eligibility." Unlike Hollander's other "disenfranchisement" theory, this one does not depend on the failure of his chosen candidate because of McCain's alleged ineligibility, but on the success of Hollander's chosen candidate— who is McCain in this scenario—despite his alleged ineligibility. On this theory, however, Hollander's alleged "disenfranchisement" flows not from the actions he has challenged here, i.e., McCain's presidential campaign or the RNC's likely selection of him as its nominee, but from his subsequent removal from office at the hands of someone else (presumably one of the co-equal branches of government), resulting (presumably, yet again) in a President different from the one Hollander helped to elect.
This theory presents a number of serious problems, not the least of which are whether the removal of an elected official by non-electoral means amounts to "disenfranchisement" of the voters who put him there, cf. Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 547, 89 S.Ct. 1944, 23 L.Ed.2d 491 (1969), and whether the claim is "contingent on events that may not occur as anticipated or may not occur at all," Lincoln House, Inc. v. Dupre, 903 F.2d 845, 847 (1st Cir.1990), namely, McCain's election to, then removal from, the office of President.
Hollander's real complaint seems to be that, in the general election, he will face the Hobson's choice of having to vote for his party's nominee, who is allegedly ineligible, or against his party's nominee, though he is a registered Republican. But a political party retains considerable, if not unlimited, discretion over the selection of its nominees, see 1 Tribe, supra, §§ 13-23-13-25, at 1118-1129, and these limitations have never been understood to incorporate the "right" of registered party members to a constitutionally eligible nominee.
This is not to demean the sincerity of Hollander's challenge to McCain's eligibility for the presidency; as discussed supra Part II, that challenge has yet to be definitively settled, and, as a number of commentators have concluded, arguably cannot be without a constitutional amendment. What is settled, however, is that an individual voter like Hollander lacks standing to raise that challenge in the federal courts. See Dugan & Collins, supra, at 115 (recognizing debates over meaning of Art. II, § 1, cl. 4, but concluding that voters lack standing to raise that issue judicially). Indeed, "[t]he purest reason to deny standing is that the plaintiff is not able to show an injury to the voter interest, however much the plaintiff may feel offended by the challenged practice." 13 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice & Procedure § 3531.4 (2d ed. 1984 & 2007 supp.) (footnote omitted). Because Hollander can show no such injury, this court lacks jurisdiction over his attempt to resolve the question of McCain's eligibility under Art. II, § 1, cl. 4. Whatever the contours of that constitutional provision, Article III has been definitively read by the courts to confer no jurisdiction over this kind of action.
For the foregoing reasons, the defendants' motion to dismiss is granted on the ground that Hollander lacks standing. All other pending motions are denied as moot. The clerk shall enter judgment accordingly and close the case.