By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A U.S. judge in Ohio on Tuesday blocked a recently passed state law that would have effectively kept a Libertarian candidate from challenging the sitting Republican governor this fall.
U.S. District Judge Michael Watson issued a preliminary injunction on legislation that created more stringent qualifications for minority parties and required them to start over in the nomination process in order to have candidates on November ballots.
Watson wrote that a number of minority party candidates have already collected signatures, filed their nominating petitions and paid the required fees to participate in the 2014 primary election.
The Ohio law is "patently unfair" and "the Ohio Legislature moved the proverbial goalpost in the midst of the game," Watson wrote.
Charlie Earl, a Libertarian who plans to challenge Governor John Kasich in November, was one of four parties challenging the lawsuit.
According to a 2013 directive from the Ohio Secretary of State, smaller parties including the Libertarian Party of Ohio were automatically granted access to the primary and general elections in 2014.
However, the law would have voided the parties' existing nominating petitions and required third-party candidates to start collecting more than 20,000 signatures by a February 5 deadline.
Kasich signed the legislation in November, after it was passed by a Republican-led legislature.
When Kasich defeated incumbent Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, in 2010, neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, as minority party candidates captured four percent.
Ohio Democrats dubbed the legislation "The John Kasich Re-Election Protection Act," claiming it was passed to protect the current governor's chances in light of growing criticism from the state's Tea Party conservatives over his expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Two Democrats are running in the primary for the right to challenge Kasich in 2014: Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald and Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune.
(Editing by Brendan O'Brien and Gunna Dickson)