One of the central questions in an Idaho Supreme Court hearing Tuesday morning was whether a new ballot initiative law places too severe a burden on Idahoans’ rights to bring a ballot initiative forward.
Idaho Supreme Court justices spent almost 90 minutes hearing oral arguments over Zoom in the case of Reclaim Idaho’s lawsuit against the state challenging Senate Bill 1110.
The new law, passed this year by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Brad Little on April 17, requires organizers of an initiative or a referendum to collect signatures from 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho legislative districts. That’s up from the previous requirement of 18 districts.
Reclaim Idaho, the volunteer-driven group behind the successful 2018 Medicaid expansion ballot initiative, filed suit in May, saying the new law makes it practically impossible to get an initiative on the ballot because of the requirement to gather signatures in the most remote and isolated parts of the state.
“Whatever the legal test is, the heart of this case is the severe burden Senate Bill 110 requires with no true purpose,” Reclaim Idaho attorney Deborah Ferguson argued. “The Legislature’s purpose is only a pretext.”
The Idaho Constitution creates the rights to an initiative.
“The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and enact the same at the polls independent of the Legislature,” the Idaho Constitution states.
The same section of the Idaho Constitution also creates the referendum process, which is the people’s ability to approve or reject at the polls any measure passed by the Legislature.
“If the Legislature impinges on citizens’ rights to propose legislation, is that unconstitutional?” Idaho Supreme Court Justice John R. Stegner asked about 45 minutes into the hearing.
At the time they passed the law, legislators argued it ensured Idahoans from rural and remote parts of the state were included in the signature gathering process before an initiative could qualify for the ballots.
On Tuesday, the state’s attorneys argued that the new law’s signature requirements don’t make it impossible to get an initiative on the ballot and that the Legislature has the powers to set the conditions and manner of the initiative and referendum process anyway.
Deputy Attorney General Megan Larrondo also argued that the case should instead be sent to District Court, arguing there are fact-intensive questions to sort out.
“The two petitions at issue before this court fail on jurisdictional grounds and on the merits,” Larrondo said.
Throughout the hearing, justices asked tough questions of both sides.
“I’m having trouble understanding whether this court should strictly scrutinize a legislative act where the Constitution itself expressly allows the Legislature’s regulation of the right,” Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robyn M. Brody told Reclaim Idaho’s attorney.
Ferguson, a partner of the law firm Ferguson Durham, handled the arguments for Reclaim Idaho. Ferguson was the lead attorney on the successful challenge to Idaho’s same sex marriage ban.
Larrondo handled most of the arguments for the state, while William Myers III, a partner at the law firm Holland and Hart, handled arguments for the Legislature. Myers is a former solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Reclaim Idaho organizers said in a statement Tuesday afternoon that if their lawsuit is successful, they would move ahead with collecting signatures for an education ballot initiative that would raise $323 million for Idaho public schools by increasing corporate incomes taxes and individual income taxes for people making more than $250,000. They hope to get that initiative on the ballot in 2022, where it would need a majority vote to pass.
If Reclaim Idaho’s lawsuit fails and the new initiative law remains in place, Reclaim organizers said they would likely put the education initiative on hold and move forward a different initiative designed to remove the legislative district requirement for signature gathering entirely. That initiative would simply require the signature of 6% of voters statewide.
Justices took the case under advisement Tuesday at the conclusion of arguments and did not issue a ruling.
It wasn’t immediately clear when the Idaho Supreme Court would issue its ruling. In the 2020 case of Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra vs. the Idaho Legislature, the court heard arguments June 5 and issued its decision June 22.
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