WASHINGTON – A Montgomery County Circuit Court judge Thursday denied a third-party candidate’s request to be included in a forum featuring the Republican and Democratic candidates for the 8th Congressional District.
Constitution Party nominee Brian D. Saunders filed suit last week against Maryland Public Television, demanding that he be allowed to participate in an upcoming forum featuring Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda, and her Democratic challenger, Terry Lierman.
But Judge James L. Ryan said Thursday that MPT was not unreasonable when it set criteria for participation in the debate, which included support from at least 15 percent of voters surveyed in an independent poll, among other measures.
Saunders, the only third-party candidate to qualify for the ballot in Maryland’s congressional races this year, complained that no polls have been done that would allow him to show that level of support. The judge was not swayed by Saunders’ argument that his legions of volunteers, his participation in other debates and his enthusiastic support at public events were evidence of “appreciable public interest” in his campaign.
Saunders campaign officials said they were disappointed by the ruling, but not surprised.
“This is what we expected would happen,” said Bill White, Saunders’ campaign manager.
White said it would not be worthwhile to pursue the case at this time, but that he and others will be back in 2002. White said he plans to form a coalition that includes independent and third-party candidates to press the fight at the next election.
“If I can make an issue of it, I will,” White said.
While MPT had excluded Saunders from the 8th District debate, it had agreed to give him equal time during a one-on-one broadcast with an MPT anchor.
In addition to requiring that third-party candidates show “measurable support” of at least 15 percent of voters in a poll, MPT also demanded that they be listed on a ballot and be running an active campaign, before they could participate in a forum with the two major party candidates.
MPT and the Saunders for Congress campaign agreed that Saunders met the first two criteria, but haggled over the last.
An MPT official who was at the hearing Thursday declined to comment on Ryan’s ruling. An assistant attorney general representing the network would only say the judge “correctly applied the law.”