Constitution trumps organizational law, petition supporter claims

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Missourians in Charge wants a judge to order Secretary of State Robin Carnahan to accept the petitions.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The constitutional right of the people to propose ballot initiatives should supersede state laws detailing how the petitions must be organized, an attorney for supporters of two rejected ballot measures argued Friday.

But a judge and attorneys defending the state's position questioned that assertion, noting that laws commonly prescribe more details than the constitution without violating it.

At issue are a pair of constitutional amendments proposed by the group Missourians in Charge that would limit state government spending and restrict the use of eminent domain to take private property.

Supporters turned in about 208,000 signatures for the eminent domain proposal and 195,000 for the spending cap proposal just minutes before the May 7 deadline.

But Secretary of State Robin Carnahan rejected them, noting some of the petitions were not numbered by county as required by law.

She also rejected the eminent domain proposal because the petition pages bore a financial summary that had been declared insufficient in court and was changed just two days before the deadline. Carnahan cited a law that prohibits insufficient financial summaries from being used for petitions.

'Risky position'

Missourians in Charge wants a judge to order Carnahan to accept the petitions and forward them to local election officials to verify whether they contain enough signatures of voters to qualify for the Nov. 7 ballot.

Timothy Belz, a St. Louis attorney for Missourians in Charge, argued that the revised financial summary on the eminent domain proposal was not much different from the original one. But more importantly, he said, the supporters had nothing to do with the rejected financial summary, which had been drafted by the state auditor's office.

If the will of petition signers can be invalidated by bureaucratic mistakes, Belz said, "You will have a situation in which people could conceivably never get their ballot titles to the voters."

But Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan said Missourians in Charge "put themselves in a risky position." If the group had started the petition process sooner, the court invalidation of the original financial summary would have occurred sooner, and the group could have had more time to gather signatures under the revised language.

An attorney for the Missouri Municipal League and others in opposition to the eminent domain proposal said the law's details were a way to safeguard the constitution. Amending the constitution should not be easy, said attorney JoAnn Sandifer, of St. Louis.

"They just started too late here," Sandifer said. "They don't have any absolute constitutional right to be on the November ballot."

Belz cited various court cases in which he said particular details of initiative petition laws were overridden by more general constitutional rights. In his case, Belz argued, Carnahan's application of the organization law -- which allows only for clerical or technical errors -- infringed on the constitutional right of initiative petitioning.

"Any statute that narrows the right to initiative petition must give way to the constitution, which guarantees it," Belz said.

If that's so, Callahan questioned Belz about whether any of the initiative petition requirements spelled out in law could be upheld.

Attorney Chuck Hatfield, a former Nixon staff member now representing people opposed to the spending limit amendment, argued that under Belz' scenario even laws describing court procedures could be invalidated for restricting people's right to "access the courts."

Callahan said he didn't believe the several boxes of unnumbered petition pages fell within the exception for clerical errors. But he also said it would be a "harsh reading of the statute" not to allow initiative supporters to turn in some unorganized petition pages, because they then would have no way to preserve their right to argue later in court that they should be accepted.

Callahan rejected a late-developing attempt to join the case by National Voter Outreach, the group hired to gather the petition signatures. But he did allow it to submit a written brief with suggestions.

National Voter Outreach President Susan Johnson said after the court arguments that the prospect of her petitions being counted "didn't look so good."

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