It is not possible to know precisely why the Utah Supreme Court dismissed the suit by Utahns for Ethical Government to get its proposed law reforming legislative ethics on the ballot. That's because the court issued a short ruling, but not an opinion, which will come later. However, the effect of the ruling is clear. It allows the Legislature's gutting of the people's right to create law through initiatives to continue. That injustice should not stand.
UEG filed its initiative petition in 2009. It seeks to ban gifts to lawmakers, impose a waiting period for legislators to become lobbyists, create an independent ethics commission and cap campaign donations. Today, Utah has no limits on campaign contributions to people running for state offices.
UEG contends that Utah law gave it a year to gather the roughly 95,000 signatures from across the state to place the initiative on the 2010 ballot. That deadline would have fallen in August 2010. However, the state, through Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, insisted the deadline fell earlier, in April 2010. Both sides agree that UEG did not collect sufficient signatures by the April deadline. The state Supreme Court ruled for the state earlier this month, meaning that the measure will not appear on the 2012 ballot.
It was a stretch for UEG to argue, in effect, that one initiative petition could span two election cycles. The Legislature since has clarified the law to make sure that can't happen.
But the larger issue is the high barriers the Legislature has erected to initiative petitions, including deadlines, the number of signatures to be collected and statewide distribution.
The Utah Constitution guarantees the people the right to make laws directly through initiative petitions, which allow for the collection of signatures to place a proposal on the ballot and enactment by a majority of the voters. However, the constitution also provides that the Legislature makes the rules for the process. The Utah Legislature is notoriously hostile to initiatives, and it has set the procedural barriers so high that they essentially gut the initiative right.
Under current law, sponsors of an initiative petition must gather legal signatures equaling 10 percent of the total votes cast for president in the previous general election. That's 96,234 John Hancocks. Further, this standard must be met in 26 of the state's 29 equally apportioned Senate districts. Though you can register to vote online, the law doesn't allow collection of online signatures.
The standards should be high enough to prevent frivolous petitions. But they shouldn't be prohibitive.