- Associated Press - Monday, April 30, 2018

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A federal judge on Monday rejected a request by the Montana Green Party for her to hear a case by state Democrats that seeks to remove the Green Party from the 2018 election ballot.

Green Party attorney Quentin Rhoades filed a motion Friday asking that a federal judge preside over the case that challenges the legality and validity of signatures gathered to qualify the party. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton agreed with the motion to remove the case from state court, according to the filing.

The Montana Democratic Party filed an emergency motion Monday morning asking U.S. District Judge Susan Watters to return the case to District Court in Lewis and Clark County.

Watters ordered the case remanded to state court hours later.

“We can only respectfully disagree with the Court’s ruling,” Rhoades said in a statement. “Montana Green Party voters remain hopeful the state court will allow them to participate in this year’s election.”

District Judge Kathy Seeley, who heard arguments last Tuesday, will now invite another judge to preside over the case, said Mike Meloy, attorney for the Democrats.

Democrats are challenging a batch of ballot signatures on the grounds that they were not personally gathered by the person who turned in the petitions signing an affidavit saying he’d personally gathered them.

The Democrats also challenged other signatures, saying they didn’t substantially match the signature on the person’s voter registration card, as required by law.

The hearing was to continue Monday in state court, but was canceled when the Green Party - listed in the case as an interested party - sought to remove the case to federal court.

Rhoades’ motion argued the Democrats had raised a constitutional issue regarding ballot access that should be heard in federal court. Democrats suggested there were other motives.

“Having tested the waters in state court and found them unappealing, the Green Party now seeks a new forum but utterly without any basis for federal removal jurisdiction,” Meloy charged in the emergency motion to remand.

Watters rejected the constitutional argument and declined a request from Democrats for costs and fees for a removal action it said was “obviously designed to obstruct and delay the state court’s hearing.”

Rhoades said he was only brought onto the case last Monday - a day before the hearing - and filed the motion as quickly as he could have.

He didn’t directly address the Democrats’ allegations, but said if the Montana Green Party gets a fair chance to put on their case, they are confident they will prevail.

Green Party officials had said last week that they intended to call people whose signatures were questioned that would testify they signed a petition. Emily Jones, attorney for the secretary of state’s office, said she was going to question whether Democrats have a right to sue over the signatures.

The Montana Democratic Party argued it has standing to sue because if Green Party candidates are on the ballot the party would have to spend more to convince voters to vote for Democrats over Green Party candidates.

The Montana Republican Legislative Campaign Committee’s motion to intervene last week was granted. The Republicans argued it would have to spend more if the Green Party candidates were eliminated because they would not be there to siphon votes away from the Democrats.

Green Party officials complained the two major parties were using the Green Party as a pawn.

“The fundamental right to vote for who you want to trumps the rights of the party it might theoretically hurt,” Rhoades said Monday.

Stapleton, a Republican, sent out an email Saturday night complaining that the “Democrats want to selectively override the expertise of our county election administrators by removing a couple hundred petition signatures.”

“When the Democrats are attacking the verification capabilities of our elections administrators in Cascade, Yellowstone and Lewis and Clark counties, they aren’t just attacking three random clerks. They’re attacking three of our best,” Stapleton wrote.

Stapleton previously argued after the 2016 election that county election clerks were not adequately addressing voter misconduct.

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