The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Which Candidates Get to Use the Title "Dr." on a Ballot?

Maybe none?


From Sooy v. Gill (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2001) (inspired by the J.D./Ed.D./Dr. post below though certainly not dispositive of that issue):

Richard Sooy, Jr., and Warren S. Wallace were candidates for elected office. Sooy sought the elected office of Board of Education member for Pennsville Township in Salem County, and Wallace sought the elected office of Freeholder in Gloucester County. Sooy is a podiatrist, while Wallace has a Ph.D. degree. Both use the professional title "Dr." preceding their names.

County clerks said no, the Sooy trial court said no, but the Wallace trial court said yes, on the grounds that, "he is commonly referred to in his political activities as Dr. Warren Wallace. His business card shows that he uses that title, Dr. Warren Wallace, and that is the name by which he is commonly known and it is, therefore, part of his persona and part of his identity." The appellate division went with the Sooy trial court, concluding that state law only authorized listing the person's name and not his title (at least absent unusual circumstances).

[T]here is no provision in our voter registration law for the insertion of a title where the registrant is asked to print his or her "[n]ame." Rather, space on the registration form is provided only for a "[l]ast," "[f]irst," and "[m]iddle" name.

And it argued that this approach made sense:

Much mischief can result from permitting discretion in this field without a candidate showing more than that he or she is known in the community by the appellation "doctor." While in this case, the evidence is clear that both candidates have legitimate doctorate degrees, that may not be evident in every case. Should a candidate be permitted to use the title "Dr." if it was obtained from a mail-in, unaccredited university? Is the public not being misled under such circumstances, irrespective of the fact that the candidate holds himself out in the community as a doctor?

County clerks have the duty to protect the integrity of the ballot, yet there is no provision in the election laws establishing a procedure for county clerks to inquire into the bona fides of a candidate's request to include a title on the ballot. Discretion vested in the county clerk to decide on an ad hoc basis whether to allow the use of titles can lead to politicization of the ballot and frequent litigation. We fail to see its benefit in the circumstances of this case.

The requests made by plaintiffs here were personal in nature. There was no issue of voter confusion raised by Sooy or Wallace stemming from the failure to use their title. That plaintiffs desire to be known to the electorate as doctors has no real relation to the goals of the election laws.

This is a matter of state law, of course; and though the New Jersey court canvassed some precedents from other states that agreed with it, other states may take a different approach.