U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s political fate was debated Monday in a Denver federal courtroom, where attorneys for the six-term congressman and the state argued over a law that is keeping the Colorado Springs Republican off the primary ballot — for now.
Lamborn’s legal team contends that a rule requiring Colorado’s candidate petition circulators to be state residents is unnecessary and unconstitutional, and that it puts the free-speech rights of voters at risk.
That challenge to the law comes after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled last week that Lamborn should be barred from the June primary ballot because a man who gathered dozens of signatures for a petition to land the congressman on the ballot is not a Colorado resident.
“Here’s what it boils down to: What should be important is the validity of each individual signature, not the credentials of the person holding the clipboard,” Lamborn told reporters outside a courtroom.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office argued that the residency requirement is an important tool for election officials and that making any change now would throw a wrench into an election cycle already facing delays because of candidates’ court challenges.
“There are real problems with changing the rules … after the game is already finished,” argued Matthew Grove, an assistant solicitor general in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office who was representing Secretary of State Wayne Williams.
U.S. District Court Judge Philip Brimmer said he would issue a written ruling in the case soon — though he did not elaborate. His decision could deal a major, if not unrecoverable, blow to Lamborn’s political future if Brimmer keeps the state’s petition-circulator residency requirement in place.
Brimmer asked questions about the impact any ruling would have on the election process and pressed Lamborn’s attorney — Ryan Call — about why the congressman hadn’t challenged the residency requirement earlier on if had concerns about it.
“This was something that Congressman Lamborn has been well aware of, or should been well aware of, for years?” Brimmer asked. “… You knew, potentially, that this could have come up.”
But Call said that the recent Colorado Supreme Court ruling, increasing the burden for meeting the residency requirement, altered a process that had not previously be a problem.
“It really has to do with how the state law has been newly applied,” Call said.
Monday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Denver was the latest turn in a legal battle that for weeks has marked the Republican battle for Colorado’s 5th Congressional District.
It dates to earlier this month, when supporters of state Sen. Owen Hill — a Colorado Springs Republican trying to unseat Lamborn — filed suit in Denver district court alleging several of Lamborn’s petition circulators did not meet the state’s residency requirements.
Lamborn’s campaign had to gather 1,000 signatures from registered Republican voters in his district to get on the ballot, and a Denver district court judge ruled that one of the gatherers hired to collect those signatures was not a resident, invalidating 58 signatures he collected.
The judge found that the other — Ryan Tipple, who had gathered more 269 signatures — was a resident.
But the Colorado Supreme Court, which reviewed the case on appeal, rejected the lower court’s ruling on Tipple’s residency, which was based on the legal theory that he intended to move to the state. The ruling left Lamborn 58 signatures short of 1,000, effectively keeping him off the ballot and prompting the federal court challenge to the state’s residency requirement.
Brimmer over the weekend issued a 19-page order denying a request by several interested parties to intervene in the ongoing federal case. The most notable among those is Hill.
The denial by Brimmer means Hill’s team can’t call witnesses or introduce new evidence and — most importantly — appeal the case if it goes in Lamborn’s favor. They have asked the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver to weigh in, but it’s uncertain whether that last-ditch effort will work.
As for Lamborn and his legal team, they say they are optimistic.
“We’re hoping and praying that justice is done and I’m restored to the ballot,” Lamborn said. “That would be the right thing for the voters of the district, and it would be the right thing for the people who signed the petitions — that their signatures, that their vote is not discarded.”