Ineligible Phila. Municipal Court candidate has defamation suit dismissed by federal judge

Jon Campisi Feb. 23, 2012, 4:32pm

A federal judge in Philadelphia has dismissed in its entirety a complaint initiated by a woman who had claimed a host of people had conspired against her in her bid to be elected to Philadelphia’s Municipal Court.

U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter on Feb. 16 granted motions to dismiss that had been filed by a handful of defendants who were named in a lawsuit by Anita Smith.

Those defendants included the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, the Pennsylvania Department of State, former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham and KYW News Radio 1060.

Smith sought to become a magisterial district judge back in November 2009, a quest that began when she enrolled in a certification class with the Minor Judiciary Education Board.

In Pennsylvania, those seeking election to minor judiciaries, such as magisterial district courts and Philadelphia’s traffic court, need no legal background, but must pass an educational course, before they can run for office.

In May 2010, Smith passed her certification exam, qualifying her to hold office.

Less than a year later, she collected the appropriate petition signatures needed for placement on the election ballot and she subsequently placed her name as a candidate in the Democratic primary.

Because she was running for Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge, however, and not magisterial district judge, Smith would have needed legal training; the Pennsylvania Constitution says only licensed attorneys can run for this post.

In March 2011, Smith was contacted by Department of State employees who informed Smith she was ineligible to hold the office she sought and she would need to withdraw her name as a candidate immediately.

Despite the notifications, however, Smith continued to receive correspondence relating to her candidacy, including a letter regarding her ballot number and one concerning campaign finance statements.

“Ms. Smith claims that in the weeks leading up to the election, the majority of the defendants conspired to ‘defame her’ by announcing to the public, both at public meetings and on television, that she was not eligible for the position of Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge,” Pratter’s ruling states.

Smith eventually filed suit against the defendants, but most of the claims in the complaint were dismissed as frivolous, according to Pratter’s ruling.

Pratter’s order dismisses the remaining claims against the defendants.

“Because the Court finds that Ms. Smith’s Amended Complaint fails to state any claims upon which relief may be granted, the Court will grant the pending motions to dismiss,” Pratter wrote. “Indeed, because these remaining claims are frivolous, just like the many claims of which the Court has already disposed … the Court will exercise its discretion … to dismiss Ms. Smith’s entire Amended Complaint because it clearly fails to state a claim, even as to those Defendants who have not moved to dismiss or otherwise responded to Ms. Smith’s Amended Complaint.”

Pratter’s ruling states that after missing the response deadlines for the first three motions to dismiss, the court ordered Smith to respond to the motions no later than Dec. 7, 2011, or risk having the motions granted as uncontested.

“That deadline has now passed, and Ms. Smith still has not responded,” the ruling states.

Pratter’s ruling states that Smith’s entire complaint rested on the “faulty notion” that she was qualified to run for Philadelphia Municipal Court judge, when the law shows otherwise.

The Pennsylvania Constitution distinguishes between judges and justices of the peace, who are also known as magisterial district judges.

Judges of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court and all other trial judges must be practicing attorneys, while justices of the peace need only take a brief legal education course.

“Ms. Smith does not plead that she is, in fact, a member of the Pennsylvania bar; rather, she argues that she does not have to be in order to hold the office she sought and that she was unlawfully discriminated against as a non-attorney,” the ruling states. “Because she was not an attorney at the time she ran for the office of Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge, none of the Defendants did anything wrong when they asked her to withdraw from the ballot, told the public that she was not qualified to hold that office, or met with others to discuss her lack of qualifications.”

Pratter further wrote that there can be “no deprivation of a right unless the plaintiff possesses a right in the first place,” and that Smith had no right to run for an office for which she didn’t meet state constitutional requirements and qualifications.

Pratter also wrote that Smith has no “federal right to state judicial office candidacy at all.”

Smith also cannot move forward with a defamation claim, Pratter ruled, since she has not pleaded that the defendants made a single false statement about her.

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