- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 21, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - A judge sharply questioned lawyers Wednesday in a dispute over whether U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit gets on the ballot for a chance to extend one of the longest careers in Congress.

The Democrat, first elected in 1964, has been scratched from the August primary because of problems with people who collected signatures for his nominating petitions, a standard task for any candidate.

Some of those people weren’t registered voters or put a wrong registration address on the petitions. It spoils those petitions, under Michigan law, and means Conyers lacks 1,000 signatures to get on the ballot.

Attorneys for Conyers and petition circulators asked U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman to throw out the state law, claiming the rules to collect signatures violate the First Amendment. They noted that an appeals court in 2008 struck down a similar Ohio law that carried registration and residency requirements.

But Leitman said he was having trouble understanding how Conyers‘ circulators were harmed when they truly believed they were following the Michigan law.

“I see this as an exceptionally difficult case,” said Leitman, who has been a judge for two months.

Conyers, 85, has an office in the courthouse but didn’t attend the hearing.

The American Civil Liberties Union represents two signature collectors in the case, Chinita Terry and Tiara Willis-Pittman. Terry listed her voter registration address as Detroit on the petition, although the registration apparently had been switched to Oak Park because she was forwarding mail to a relative there.

Willis-Pittman had signed up to vote in December but her registration wasn’t processed until months later.

To punish Conyers for that would be “pretty outrageous,” said his attorney, John Pirich.

Assistant Attorney General Erik Grill urged the judge to stay on the sideline until Michigan election officials look at Conyers‘ petitions and determine whether he should be kept off the ballot for other reasons. They are checking the validity of more than 1,000 signatures.

Leitman said he might make a decision Friday, after state officials announce their findings that same day.

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