Can the Tennessee Democratic Party Disqualify Angie Dalton for Fundraising for Republicans?

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Election season is back!  As Nashville gears up for a major transit referendum and readies itself to choose critical new officeholders for…Register of Deeds and several other county offices that we inexplicably elect, the time for junk mail, jingles, and internal party shenanigans is officially upon us.

This blog has previously tackled the issue of whether trying to vote in another party’s primary is illegal (it’s not).  For this edition of “is that really allowed?”, we examine whether a political party can disqualify a candidate from running as a Democrat after fundraising for Republicans (or vice versa).  The answer: Yes—and candidates can also be disqualified by parties for any other reason the party sees fit.

Yesterday afternoon, a Democratic voter in Nashville officially contested the Democratic qualifications of Angelita (“Angie”) Dalton, who is running for Criminal Court Judge.  In August of last year, before being elevated to Criminal Court Judge by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, then-General Sessions Judge Dalton apparently contributed $250.00 to the Republican Party of Tennessee after attending a GOP fundraiser headlined by Vice President Mike Pence:

The donation appears to implicate some judicial ethics issues—Rule 4.1(A)(4) of Tennessee’s Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits sitting judges from “mak[ing] a contribution to a political organization”—but Judge Dalton’s primary concern is certain to be political.  Given most Tennessee Democrats’ outright revulsion to Vice President Pence, to the Trump White House, and to the Tennessee Democratic Party’s chief political opponent (the Republican Party of Tennessee) in general, Democrats, it seems, are not pleased.

It should first be noted that despite their pervasiveness, political parties are private organizations that enjoy a First Amendment right to set their own rules and determine the terms of their association.  The Supreme Court has held over and over again that governmental interference with a private group’s membership requirements “may impair the ability of the original members to express only those views that brought them together.” [1]  In Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “[f]reedom of association therefore plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate.”[2]   The Supreme Court has also made clear that this freedom is at its zenith when it comes to political parties’ “right to choose their own standard-bearers.”[3]

Enter Judge Dalton’s $250.00 contribution to the Tennessee Democratic Party’s chief political rival.  Can she still run as a Democrat despite that donation, or is such a contribution grounds for disqualification?  If the TNDP would like to disqualify her—which it has no obligation to do—the answer is that Judge Dalton can absolutely be disqualified from running in the upcoming Democratic Primary.  Some Democrats (like the author, for instance), have also called for more robust enforcement of the Democratic Party brand to prevent people like Sheriff David Clarke from ruining it.  Whether the TNDP will act on the pending petition to disqualify Judge Dalton, however, is a different question entirely.

Tennessee law expressly provides—as it must—that “[a] party may require by rule that candidates for its nominations be bona fide members of the party.”  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-13-104.  Tennessee law also provides that the state executive committee of a political party “with which a primary candidate filed [a qualifying] petition” is empowered to “determine[] that the candidate is not qualified” and have him or her removed from the party’s primary ballot.  See Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-5-204(a).

In determining whether a candidate qualifies as a “bona fide” Democrat, the TNDP’s bylaws helpfully include a specific definition.  Specifically, they provide:

“A bona fide Democrat is defined as an individual whose record of public service, actions, accomplishment, public writings and/or public statements affirmatively demonstrates that he or she is faithful to the interests, welfare and success of the Democratic Party of the United States and of the State of Tennessee. The State Party or a county party may make exceptions to this rule for requesting individuals in the spirit of an inclusive and a growing Party.”

Whether Judge Dalton’s contribution to the Tennessee Republican Party indicates that she is not “faithful to the interests, welfare and success of the Democratic Party” is an unreviewable question that only the TNDP is equipped to answer.  If past is prologue, the TNDP is also unlikely to act on the challenge, in which case Judge Dalton would remain qualified to run as a Democrat.  As to whether the TNDP is permitted to disqualify her from doing so, however, the law is equally clear: it can.

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[1] Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 623, 104 S. Ct. 3244, 3252, 82 L. Ed. 2d 462 (1984).

[2] Id. (emphasis added).

[3] Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442, 453, 128 S. Ct. 1184, 1192, 170 L. Ed. 2d 151 (2008) (citing Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, 520 U.S. 351, 359, 117 S. Ct. 1364, 1370, 137 L. Ed. 2d 589 (1997)).