Pennsylvania Abandons Loyalty Oath for Candidates

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Candidates for public office in Pennsylvania no longer have to sign a McCarthy-era loyalty oath pledging that they are not "subversive."

The requirement was unconstitutional, Attorney General Tom Corbett has told election officials.

The change was ordered after John Staggs refused to sign the oath when he turned in nominating petitions earlier this year and then threatened to sue the state.

"I believe their definition of 'subversive' can really apply to anyone," said Staggs, 59, who is running for a state legislative seat. "They want to be able to pick and choose, so they can use it versus people who are challenging the status quo."

The 1951 law describes as subversive anyone who advocates or takes part in "any act intended to overthrow, destroy (or) alter" the government.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared an Indiana loyalty oath unconstitutional in 1974, finding that the oath violated free-speech rights by equating an abstract belief in radical change with inciting "imminent" violence.

In Pennsylvania, however, the oath continued to be administered in most elections until Corbett's order on July 25. A 1975 attorney general's opinion said it was unconstitutional to require state employees to take the oath, but it did not address the provision applied to political candidates.

Other states have similar laws requiring loyalty oaths.

"Nobody really pays any attention to them," said Richard Winger, editor and publisher of Ballot Access News, which tracks election law nationwide.