Trial and Appellate Courts Lacked Subject Matter Jurisdiction Over Election Disputes

Two trial courts lacked subject matter jurisdiction over election disputes, where statutory criteria for jurisdiction were not met. The courts’ judgments were therefore void. The appellate court lacked jurisdiction in turn and the appeals were dismissed. Smith v. Burkhalter, No. 1080202 (Ala. May 15, 2009); Crouch v. Howard, No. 1080152 (Ala. May 15, 2009).

1.

Smith v. Burkhalter

Local elections ended in a runoff vote. Before the runoff could be held, several candidates filed an election contest in the circuit court. The circuit court entered summary judgment and the aggrieved party appealed.

The Supreme Court of Alabama held that both it and the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the dispute. Circuit courts are given jurisdiction over election contests under specific statutory criteria. One of these criteria mandates that some candidate must have been “declared elected” before the courts can entertain an election contest. See Ala. Code § 11-46-69 (1975). Here, the election had ended in the need for a runoff, and no candidate had been “declared elected.” This prevented the circuit court from obtaining subject matter jurisdiction. The summary judgment was thus void. “An appeal will not lie from a void judgment.” The appeal was consequently dismissed.

2.

Crouch v. Howard

Similar facts led to an identical result in Crouch. There, the losing candidate filed an election dispute but failed to name his victorious opponent as a defendant. Under the governing statute (§ 11-46-69), the “only logical defendant” in such a contest is the “person declared elected.” Because the plaintiff had failed to name that person, statutory criteria were not met, and the circuit court did not obtain subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute. The circuit court’s judgment was void and would not support an appeal.