Candidates for public office in Pennsylvania will no longer have to sign a McCarthy-era loyalty oath pledging that they are not "subversive," a change ordered by the state attorney general after the requirement was challenged.
John Staggs, a meatpacker, refused to sign the oath when he turned in nominating petitions earlier this year, and threatened to sue the state. Now, Attorney General Tom Corbett has told election officials to stop enforcing the requirement because it is unconstitutional.
"I believe their definition of 'subversive' can really apply to anyone," said Staggs, 59, who is challenging Rep. Rosita Youngblood, D-Philadelphia, in the November election. "They want to be able to pick and choose, so they can use it versus people who are challenging the status quo."
The 1951 law describes as subversive anyone who advocates or takes part in "any act intended to overthrow, destroy (or) alter" the government. It also says "advocacy" of "violence or force" is a prerequisite to being a subversive.
The U.S. Supreme Court declared an Indiana loyalty oath unconstitutional in 1974. In that case, the court found that the oath violated free-speech rights by equating an abstract belief in radical change with inciting "imminent" violence.
In Pennsylvania, however, the loyalty oath continued to be administered in most elections.
In 1975, then-Attorney General Robert P. Kane issued an opinion that it was unconstitutional to require state employees to take the oath. Kane did not address the provision that applied to political candidates.
Corbett referred to Kane's opinion and applied the reasoning to candidates last month. On July 25, he directed officials to "discontinue the oath unless and until" the Supreme Court decision is overturned.
Law remains intact
The oath itself will remain on the books; it would take an act of the Legislature to repeal it.
Other states, including California, Kansas, Illinois and Arkansas, have similar laws requiring loyalty oaths.
"Nobody really pays any attention to them," said Richard Winger, editor and publisher of Ballot Access News, which tracks election law nationwide.
Two candidates in western Pennsylvania also challenged the state law last year.
The Socialist Worker candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh, Jay M. Ressler, refused to sign the oath and was granted a waiver.
In Mercer County, a University of Pittsburgh philosophy professor, Gerald J. Massey, balked after he was elected as a write-in candidate to the Stoneboro Council. The county solicitor eventually declared that the oath was unconstitutional.
Staggs said that, while he doesn't predict he will beat Youngblood, fighting the loyalty oath was a major reason for his candidacy.
"I definitely think our party challenges the status quo, but I wouldn't call it subversive," he said. "We want working people to have power."