Utah Supreme Court throws out challenge to legislation that replaced medical cannabis ballot initiative

(The Salt Lake Tribune | Kathy Stephenson) Utahns who support Proposition 2 picked up their lawn signs and T-shirt during a rally. The Utah Supreme Court has thrown out a citizen group's challenge to the legislature's bill replacing Proposition 2, the state's voter-approved medical cannabis law.

The Utah Supreme Court has thrown out a citizen group’s challenge to the Legislature’s bill replacing Proposition 2, the state’s voter-approved medical cannabis law.

“The charade is over. Utah’s supreme court has confirmed that the initiative process, the last resort citizens thought they could use to resist the network of corruption infesting every branch of government, was an illusory fraud all along," said Daniel Newby a petitioner connected to the citizen’s group The People’s Right. The group had argued the Legislature unconstitutionally rode over the voters’ will by replacing the medical cannabis law that prevailed in the 2018 election.

"So-called initiatives are nothing more than non-binding resolutions conspiring politicians use for toilet paper," Newby wrote in a news statement Tuesday.

Attorneys for the Legislature could not be reached for comment on the ruling.

In a unanimous decision, the three judges ruled that Gov. Gary Herbert acted within his authority when he called a special session of the Legislature to create a more restrictive medical cannabis law in December 2018, one business day after the voter-approved Prop 2 took effect.

The People's Right had argued Herbert effectively "vetoed" Prop 2 by calling a special session to replace it. Ballot initiatives are not subject to gubernatorial veto.

But in an opinion written by Justice Paige Petersen, the court disagreed, noting that state law is clear that the governor may call a special session in "exigent circumstances."

After the legislature passed its more restrictive measure, Newby and other members of The People’s Right sought to overturn the bill in a voter referendum. But because the replacement legislation was approved by two-thirds “supermajorities” in the state House and Senate, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who oversees elections, deemed it ineligible for a referendum.

The People’s Right asked the state Supreme Court to intervene and allow the referendum, arguing that provisions banning referenda on bills supported by supermajorities in the Legislature should not apply to ballot initiatives that were passed by voters in the first place.

The group, which was not represented by professional attorneys, pointed to a previous court rulings where justices described the people’s opportunity to directly legislate in ballot initiatives and referenda as “sacrosanct and a fundamental right,” and “coequal” to the Legislature.

“Today’s ruling makes [that] quote pure political B.S.,” said Steve Maxfield, chairman of The People’s Right. “Initiatives and referendums are D.O.A.”

The court ruled that there is nothing in statute making ballot initiatives exempt from laws that prevent a voter referendum on any law passed with two-thirds majorities.

But the ruling does not address other questions of whether the Legislature acted within bounds when it replaced not only the ballot initiative on medical cannabis, but also another voter-approved measure on Medicaid expansion.

For instance, the judges did not rule on whether the passage of a medical cannabis initiative amounted to an “exigent circumstance,” worthy of a special session called by the governor. When The People’s Right petitioned the state Supreme Court directly, they didn’t offer a sufficient reason for bypassing the lower courts, which, Peterson wrote, would have been the proper venue for questions of fact.

It is unclear whether The People’s Right will pursue any further legal action or what the group’s next steps may be.

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” wrote Bart Grant, the group’s vice chair. “Think I’ll do something presidential and go hit some golf balls.”

Tribune Reporter Bethany Rogers contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: Utah Supreme Court Justice John Pearce is the husband of Salt Lake Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce.