Tuesday, September 9, 2003
Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Idaho Requirement for Geographic Distribution of Petition Signatures
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An Idaho law requiring supporters of an initiative to collect the signatures of six percent of the registered voters in at least half of the state’s 44 counties violates the Equal Protection Clause, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
“Because Idaho’s counties vary widely in population, this geographic distribution requirement favors residents of sparsely populated areas over residents of more densely populated areas in their respective efforts to participate in the process of qualifying initiatives for the ballot,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote.
The state failed to show a justification for the unequal treatment of large-county residents, Reinhardt added.
The 1997 law was challenged by the Idaho Coalition United for Bears and others. The coalition, known as I-CUB, opposes the baiting and hounding of black bears, and wants to ban hunting of the creatures in the spring, when females are nursing their cubs.
I-CUB lost a 1996 vote, and wants to bring its proposal back to the ballot. But it claims that only the wealthiest of initiative proponents can qualify a measure under the 1997 law.
U.S. District Judge Lynn B. Winmill struck down the geographic-distribution requirement, noting that county populations in Idaho vary from a little more than 1,000 to more than 300,000, with 60 percent of the people living in the nine most populous counties.
The district judge also declared unconstitutional related laws that banned the use of paid signature-gatherers and made it a crime to misrepresent the contents or effect of a petition, but the state did not appeal those rulings.
I-CUB did not appeal Winmill’s ruling upholding a law requiring that all signature-gatherers be Idaho residents.
Winmill and the Ninth Circuit panel based their rulings on Moore v. Ogilvie, 394 U.S. 814 (1969). The high court in that case struck down an Illinois law that required a new political party to obtain 25,000 signatures, including 200 from each of 50 counties—out of 102—in order to place its presidential candidate on the state ballot.
Idaho argued that Moore’s reasoning does not apply to initiatives. The state cited a 1978 case in which Massachusetts’ highest court upheld a geographic distribution requirement for ballot measures, even though the court had previously rejected a similar requirement for candidate petitions.
The Massachusetts court reasoned that restrictions on the right of initiative are subject to a lower level of scrutiny because there is no federal constitutional right to legislate at the ballot box. But Reinhardt questioned the logic of that decision, pointing out in a footnote that the same could be said of the law struck down in Moore, since there is no federal constitutional right to vote for presidential electors.
“The district court perceived no material difference between the Illinois petition requirement invalidated in Moore and the requirement at issue in the present case, and we agree that there is none,” Reinhardt said.
The judge rejected the state’s claimed justifications for the law, including its desire to limit the size of its ballot and “protect the state from localized legislation.” Those goals can be obtained by other means, Reinhardt said, such as by increasing the total signature requirement.
The appellate jurist distinguished several decisions that have upheld geographic-distribution requirements.
A Pennsylvania ruling upholding a requirement that statewide candidates obtain 100 signatures in each of 10 out of the state’s 67 counties, Reinhardt noted, was based in part on the fact that there was a smaller population disparity among Pennsylvania counties than that in Illinois at the time of Moore. And decisions in other states upheld requirements that signatures be distributed among divisions of equal population, such as congressional districts, the judge noted.
Judges William Fletcher and Ronald M. Gould concurred in the opinion.
The case is Idaho Coalition United for Bears v. Cenarussa, 02-35030.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company