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N.J. postal worker claims law wrongly bars House run

By The Associated Press


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NEWARK, N.J. — Roger Merle can deliver the mail, but the law says he cannot deliver votes.

Merle is all set to run for Congress as the Green Party candidate in New Jersey's 2nd district: His petitions have been filed, and the challenge period has passed without complaint.

But there is a hitch. He does not want to quit his job to run.

Merle is a letter carrier, and postal workers are among the millions of federal employees barred by the Hatch Act from seeking partisan office.

The Cumberland County man does not want his candidacy to threaten his job or pension, so he is challenging the constitutionality of the law, which was enacted in the 1939 to prevent federal workers from becoming politicized.

It barred the workers from virtually all political activity aside from party membership. A 1993 revision removed many restrictions, but still forbids running for partisan office and raising funds.

So while the law prevents Merle's boss from soliciting him for a political donation, it also forces Merle to choose between continued employment and a House bid.

"We're striking a blow for openness in government," said Merle's lawyer, Bruce I. Afran. "Congressmen have protected themselves from competition by people who know their jobs best." He estimated that the Hatch Act affects 3 million federal workers and 1 million state workers whose jobs are federally funded.

Merle filed a lawsuit this month asking a judge to declare the Hatch Act unconstitutional because it sets requirements for the office of U.S. representative that are not found in the Constitution, and because it violates the First Amendment's free-speech and association guarantees.

A hearing is scheduled Sept. 5 before U.S. District Judge Joseph E. Irenas.

Merle, 50, of Bridgeton, carries the mail in Vineland. If he runs, he faces Rep. Frank LoBiondo of Vineland, who seeks a fifth term, and Democrat Steven Farkas of Smithville.

A lifelong Democrat who lost faith during the 2000 presidential campaign, Merle said he knew the Hatch Act was an impediment when he decided to run.

"I thought it was very discriminatory. I felt it was clearly a violation of my political rights. About the only thing I can do is vote," Merle said yesterday.

The Constitution addresses the qualifications for only a few offices, including U.S. representative: "No person shall be a representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen," reads Article I, Section 2, Clause 2.

Afran said that clause was upheld as the sole requirement as recently as 1995 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state term-limit laws.

And while the Constitution also requires that federal jobs be resigned to be seated in office, Afran maintains that does not apply to candidates.

Afran believes Merle's case will fare better than challenges that relied only on the First Amendment. The Supreme Court rejected such cases in 1947 and 1973, finding there was a "rational basis" for the rule "to eliminate the influence of politics on the administration of government," Afran said.

The framers of the Constitution believed few should be excluded from serving, Afran maintained, citing James Madison's endorsement of the qualifications for representative: "Under these reasonable limitations, the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith."

Preserving the restrictions of the Hatch Act has value, said Robert E. Moffit, a political scientist at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

"The confidence that people have in government is the confidence that whether the officials are Republican or Democrat, it doesn't make any difference: They are going to fairly enforce the laws of the United States," said Moffit, director of domestic policy studies at the foundation.

Afran was the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2000. He got 1.1% of the vote in which Democrat Jon Corzine prevailed.


Ruling: N.J. postal worker can't run for House
Federal judge says U.S. Supreme Court has already rejected arguments that law barring federal employees from seeking partisan office violates free speech, association.  09.11.02