DETROIT — A judge on Friday ordered U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ name placed on the August primary ballot, trumping Michigan election officials who said the Democrat was ineligible because of problems with his nominating petitions.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman capped a turbulent day of law and politics and appeared to diminish the possibility that Conyers – No. 2 in seniority in the House – might have to mount a write-in campaign to keep his 50-year congressional career alive.
Conyers needed 1,000 petition signatures to get a spot in the Democratic primary. But many petitions were thrown out because the people who gathered names weren’t registered voters or listed a wrong registration address. That left him more than 400 short.
But Leitman issued an injunction putting Conyers on the ballot. He said a Michigan law that puts strict requirements on petition circulators is similar to an Ohio law that was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal appeals court in 2008.
Leitman said the free speech rights of Conyers and the circulators were harmed, an argument pressed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
There is evidence that the failure to comply with the law was a “result of good-faith mistakes and that (circulators) believed they were in compliance with the statute,” the judge said.
Leitman’s decision came hours after the Michigan Secretary of State agreed with Detroit-area election officials and said Conyers was disqualified.
Conyers, 85, was pleased with the sudden victory.
“I’m trying not to smile openly much but this is very good news, and it’s also good news for the process,” Conyers told WXYZ-TV.
It was not immediately clear if the judge’s ruling would end the saga.
The Michigan attorney general’s office had defended the law and urged Leitman to reject Conyers’ challenge. Spokeswoman Joy Yearout said the state hasn’t decided whether to go to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the same court that struck down the Ohio law.
Conyers has been in Congress since 1965 and would be the longest-serving member of the House if re-elected. He has routinely been returned to Washington in his heavily Democratic district, often with more than 80 percent of the vote.
His petitions were challenged by the campaign of a Democratic rival, the Rev. Horace Sheffield III. A spokeswoman for the pastor sounded conciliatory after Conyers won in court.
“It’s just unfortunate that the people of this region had to go on an emotional rollercoaster for Conyers’ name to be on the ballot, but a tamer election is a good election,” Kim Moore said.
While Conyers doesn’t have to worry about a write-in campaign, at least for now, there’s precedent in Detroit for write-in success. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan used that method in 2013 after his name was kept off the ballot due to a residency issue.
In 2012, Republican Rep. Thad McCotter of suburban Detroit didn’t make the ballot because a staff member turned in phony signatures or ones from old petitions. McCotter said he would mount a write-in campaign but dropped the effort.
This report was written by Associated Press reporters Ed White and Jeff Karoub.