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Utah judge weighs arguments on ethics initiative

Published April 27, 2012 8:07 pm

Courts • Group presses case to put reform on November ballot; state counters that initiative didn't qualify.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A judge is considering a Utah group's fight to place ethics reform on the November ballot.

The group calling itself Utahns for Ethical Government has been fighting the Lieutenant Governor's Office since 2010 over the ethics initiative, which seeks to establish an independent ethics commission in Utah. UEG officials say the initiative qualifies for the ballot if the group had a calendar year from the time it began collecting signatures, and as long as some petition signatures collected online are counted.

In court Friday, 3rd District Judge Todd Shaugnessy heard arguments from a UEG lawyer and assistant Attorney General Thomas Roberts before taking the matter under advisement.

Arguing on behalf of the state, Roberts asked the judge to grant summary judgment, claiming UEG did not have enough signatures at the April 2010 deadline to qualify for the ballot.

UEG attorney Alan Smith countered that the group should have been given a calendar year to complete collecting signatures, which would have put the deadline in August.

While Roberts said the Legislature intended to give groups only until April of a general election year to gather enough signatures, Smith said the law's language allowed the group to "straddle election cycles."

Roberts, however, argued the law was intended to give petitioners only "up to one year" to gather enough signatures. If the effort fails by the April 15 deadline, the group should have to start over, he said.

"We think the Legislature chose a process to give you one bite at the apple," Roberts argued.

"If there is a question, it should be read liberally in a way that furthers the citizens' right — their constitutional right — to petition their government for redress," Smith said.

If Shaughnessy agrees the group should have been given a calendar year, the judge must still decide on whether to count signatures collected electronically.

The group collected an estimated 130,000 signatures, including more than 1,000 electronic signatures.

Utah officials have said so-called e-signatures should not count and are more susceptible to fraud and bad collecting practices.

In 2010, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in favor of gubernatorial candidate Farley Anderson, who collected signatures online to meet the 1,000 valid-voter signatures required for an independent candidate to get on a ballot. UEG filed a friend of the court brief in the matter, but the high court kept its ruling narrow and did not address the issue of initiative petitions.

A year later, the Legislature passed a law banning electronic signatures for election purposes, though they are accepted by the state for many other purposes. This year, however, lawmakers voted in favor of a bill ordering the study of electronic signatures.

afalk@sltrib.com