WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to hear former presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s appeal challenging Texas’ ballot-access rules as discriminatory against independents.
Meanwhile, the high court yesterday also refused to review a California Supreme Court decision regulating wine bearing the “Napa” name.
In the Texas case, Nader v. Connor, Nader’s attorney, James Carter Linger of Tulsa, Okla., said the Court’s decision “puts an end to this case.”
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas’ rules as constitutional in October when Texas kept Nader off the November ballot for failing to collect enough signatures.
Nader tried to get on the Texas ballot by collecting voter names, but his campaign submitted them two weeks after the May deadline. His attorneys argued the state had no legitimate reason to have different requirements for independent and third-party candidates.
Linger acknowledged that the odds were against the high court taking up the case.
“They only accept about 1% of the petitions, so it’s a question of what they have time to and what they want to address,” he said.
Nader was required to collect at least 64,076 signatures by May 10 from registered voters who did not vote in the Democratic or Republican primaries. That equals 1% of all votes cast for president in the most recent election in Texas.
Third-party candidates needed to collect 45,540 signatures by May 24, the day Nader’s campaign turned in its signatures. State officials argued the signature and time requirements were not unreasonable and could have been met with a better effort by Nader’s group.
Deputy Attorney General Ed Burbach said he is pleased the Supreme Court left intact lower court decisions upholding state election laws and determining “that Mr. Nader could have gained access to the Texas ballot had he elected to act as a diligent candidate.”
Of the 80,000 signatures Nader’s campaign filed in May, a random sample by the state showed that between 56,215 and 63,374 were valid. Those numbers would have qualified Nader under the third-party access rules but not as an independent candidate.
Nader ran for president in 2000 as a Green Party candidate and won 2.7% of the vote nationally. Some Democrats blamed him for pulling enough votes away from Democrat Al Gore to cause him to lose the election to President Bush.
Meanwhile, Napa vintners yesterday welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision that let stand a ruling that wine with the “Napa” name on the bottle must be made with grapes grown in that famous region.
“We are very happy with the decision,” said Linda Reiff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners. “It’s our goal to assure consumers that if a wine label says Napa that the wine in the bottle is really from Napa.”
The high court’s decision not to intervene did not end the case. Other challenges are pending to the state law requiring that wines wearing the Napa label be made from at least 75% Napa-grown grapes and a hearing is scheduled next month.
“Our enthusiasm is tempered a bit in knowing that in April we have to go back to the Court of Appeals to argue the remaining issues,” Reiff said. “Meanwhile, the state law that was passed in the fall of 2000 has not gone into effect.”
Prestige, profits and a clash of winemaking philosophies were at stake in the battle. The final outcome could determine whether California, the leader in the U.S. wine industry, goes to a European model of strict naming rules based on the concept of “terroir” — loosely, that good wine reflects the place where it was grown.
Napa vintners in favor of tightening the rules say using their good name to sell wine made from cheaper grapes is unfair and could ruin the valley’s reputation.
“This place wouldn’t exist. You would have shopping malls,” Tom Shelton, president and CEO of Joseph Phelps Vineyards in the Napa Valley, said in a recent interview.
On the other side of the issue is low-price wine champion Fred Franzia, co-owner of Bronco Wine Co. in Central California which makes the popular Two Buck Chuck.
Attorney Peter M. Brody, representing Bronco, downplayed the significance of yesterday’s decision, saying the odds are always small the Supreme Court will take a case.
Among the issues still pending are claims the state law impinges Bronco’s free-speech rights, puts a burden on interstate commerce and also is unconstitutional because it deprives Bronco of income without compensation.
“There is a real problem with consistency with the statute. It does not treat all wineries or all brands the same and that should bother fair-minded persons,” said Brody.
The issue before the Supreme Court revolved around Bronco’s argument that its brands are protected by federal regulations.
Federal rules also require the 75% standard to name a wine after a specific region. However, there is an exception for brands established before 1986.
Those brands include Bronco’s Napa Ridge, Napa Creek Winery and Rutherford Vintners wines, which are made from grapes grown outside the Napa Valley. The origin of the grapes is printed on the labels, but in smaller print than the brand names.
The state law closed the pre-1986 loophole, but Bronco challenged the law, saying federal rules should be followed. A state appeals court found in favor of Bronco, but the state Supreme Court reversed that ruling. Bronco then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Franzia, who has dismissed Napa and its $50 and $100 wines as a “house of cards,” has said he is being targeted by the industry elite. He notes that Napa Ridge was made with non-Napa grapes before he bought it from Beringer Wine Estates in 2000 for $40 million.
Closing the federal loophole would carry a significant economic impact. Napa’s cabernet sauvignon grapes go for nearly $4,000 a ton compared to the statewide red wine grape average of about $600 a ton.
Napa vintners say they’re not targeting Bronco, noting there are more than 30 brand names that could potentially be grandfathered in under the federal loophole.
Bronco officials say their labels aren’t deceptive since they carry grape origins and also maintain that consumers can differentiate between geography and marketing. After all, Franzia has said, people buy London Fog raincoats without assuming that they’re made in London.
Shelton disagrees, saying that argument puts wine in a “whole other consumer goods category in which it doesn’t belong. For centuries, people have understood that there is a direct connection between wine style and the place where it comes from.”
The case is Bronco Wine Co. v. Jolly, 04-945.