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The Supreme Court and the legal status of political parties

Paul R Petterson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


American political parties, throughout their history, have functioned as central institutions of governance and democracy. While their legislative and policy making role remains vital today, their identity as a link between citizens and government has changed markedly in this century. A major reason for their shifting electoral role has been the emergence of state governments as active regulators of the political process in the Progressive Era. Since the late 1960's, the U.S. Supreme Court has adjudicated a series of disputes involving this legalized electoral environment, becoming in the process a major interpreter of the legal status of political parties. The absence of any reference to parties in the text of the Constitution has given the justices of the Court significant authority in structuring the constitutional status of parties. The dissertation examines the ideas which have guided the exercise of that authority, and explores their implications for the American party system and American democracy. Analysis of Court opinions involving ballot access, party organization/nomination procedures, campaign finance, and patronage reveals two opposing schools of thought among the justices of the Court. One viewpoint envisions politics as a "natural order" nurtured by wide party competition and access to the electoral arena, and perverted by many state regulations. A contrasting vision sees politics as a "constructed order" nurtured by stable party competition and best preserved by state regulation. These differing ideas of party politics are reflected in the justices' conceptions of political competition and choice, party structure and functions, judicial standards of review, and the proper role of government in the electoral process. The political implications of these contending viewpoints extend beyond the purely judicial realm, shaping the future of the American electoral system and efforts to build stronger parties. An analysis of these schools of thought using a set of "strong party/responsible party" attributes concludes that, while the "natural order" offers parties some increase in autonomy, neither viewpoint offers a clear road to stronger parties. The quest for party renewal must ultimately be as political as it has been judicial. In addition, these opinions reflects a broader, continuing debate over whether democracy is best understood as expression (access, competition) or governance (legislative representation, stability).

Subject Area

Political science

Recommended Citation

Petterson, Paul R, "The Supreme Court and the legal status of political parties" (1995). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9606549.