A Virginia delegate to the Republican National Convention filed a class action lawsuit in federal court Friday challenging a state law that binds delegates to support the primary winner at the nominating convention.
The outcome of the lawsuit could have significant implications for Donald Trump’s nomination, as it will be a test case of a key argument being pushed by some Trump opponents who want to see him stopped at a contested convention.
They argue that state laws requiring delegates to vote for a specific candidate are unconstitutional, on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment’s protection of the right to assemble — and that delegates to the national convention should be allowed to vote for whomever they please.
Beau Correll, a Republican National Convention delegate who served as one of Cruz's campaign co-chairs in Virginia's 10th district, is the only named plaintiff in the suit, but he's filed it on behalf of Virginia’s 49 Republican and 110 Democratic delegates. It challenges a Virginia law that states: "Delegates and alternates shall be bound to vote on the first ballot at the national convention for the candidate receiving the most votes in the primary unless that candidate releases those delegates and alternates from such vote.”
Read the full complaint here.
The complaint reads: "The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees delegates to the Republican Party’s and Democratic Party’s national conventions the right to vote their conscience, free from government compulsion, when participating in the selection of their party’s presidential nominee. Nonetheless, Virginia law acts to strip them of that right, imposing criminal penalties on delegates who vote for anyone other than the primary winner on the first ballot at a national convention. That law cannot be sustained under the First Amendment or as a legitimate exercise of Virginia’s authority under the United States Constitution.”
Virginia Republican Party rules actually conflict with the state statute — they allocate their 49 delegates proportionally. But Correll’s attorneys write in the complaint that he’s concerned, because Trump “is known to be litigious and has…brought lawsuits of questionable merit against persons for the apparent purpose of harassing or punishing them,” that Trump could use the state statute to prosecute Correll for voting against him.
“Based on these reports, Correll is concerned that voting against Trump at the convention may subject him to retaliatory litigation by Trump, Trump’s campaign, or other persons or entities associated with Trump, based in part on Section 545(D),” the complaint reads.
Correll's attorneys filed an injunction declaring Correll will need protection from prosecution under the state law because he plans to vote against Trump at the convention.
“Correll, like many other Republicans, refuses to cast his first-ballot vote—or any other vote—for Virginia primary winner Donald Trump because Correll believes that Trump is unfit to serve as President of the United States. Yet, if he does not vote for Trump, he faces criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment,” they write in the injunction.
They’ve asked that consideration of the case be expedited in hopes of getting an answer before the Republican National Convention, which is less than a month away.
A finding that Virginia's law is indeed unconstitutional would help eliminate a major roadblock to the small but growing grassroots effort to challenge Trump at the convention, as it would offer a test case for delegates concerned about legal action for breaking state or party binding rules.
Trump secured the majority of delegates needed to nab the nomination over a month ago, but he’s continued to face opposition from many GOP officials and activists who believe he could cost the Republicans the White House and damage the party for years to come.
And Cruz, through a strong grassroots organizing effort, was able to get his supporters elected to a sizable chunk of the delegate slots nationwide.
Still, Cruz has backed Trump since he nabbed the nomination, and those in his orbit say he’s not interested or involved in any effort to orchestrate a coup.
And there are other obstacles to a contested convention.
Even if this case makes clear state laws binding delegates are unconstitutional, party rules — with their own penalties — still remain. The movement to oust Trump has yet to find a viable alternative, and RNC leadership has panned their effort. And the Trump campaign is taking the possibility seriously, building a 150-person whip team to keep delegates in line at the convention.