PHOENIX — A new law making it harder for voters to put their own measures on the ballot will remain on the books, at least for now.
Without comment, the Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday left intact a lower court ruling that denied challengers the right to contest the 2017 law that requires that all initiatives must be in "strict compliance'' with every election law before they can go before voters. That law pushed through by the Republican-controlled Legislature overruled prior court decisions that had said "substantial compliance'' is sufficient to survive a legal challenge.
But in tossing the case, the justices did not rule on the merits of the law or the challenge.
Instead, they effectively kicked the legal can down the road, agreeing with the Court of Appeals that the case isn't legally "ripe'' to decide. That's because there is no pending initiative in danger of being kicked off the ballot for failing to comply with the new stricter standard.
The decision disappointed attorney Roopali Desai who represents various groups who charge that the law is unconstitutional. She contends the new requirement itself creates a new — and illegal — hurdle to future initiatives because it will force organizers to spend more money to ensure that each and every aspect of petitions, no matter how technical, meets the strict compliance standard.
"The injury (to initiative backers) is occurring before you get sued,'' she said.
Central to the issue is the state constitutional right of voters to create their own laws.
Any group that gets the signatures equal to 10 percent of the people in the last gubernatorial election can put a statutory change on the ballot. For 2020, that figure is 237,465.
Constitutional changes have a 15 percent requirement, or 356,467.
Some lawmakers, largely on the Republican side of the aisle, have complained about the initiative process. They contend it has led to special interest groups proposing measures that affect the state and its budget.
Proponents counter they go directly to voters when legislators won't act. Recent examples range from banning gestational crates for pigs and outlawing leghold traps on state land to allowing patients to use marijuana for medical reasons.
But what prompted the 2017 law was the approval a year earlier, by a 3-2 margin, of an increase in the state minimum wage. That occurred over the objections of business interests.
Powerless to increase the number of signatures required, lawmakers imposed some new requirements, including the "strict compliance'' standard.
That was designed to overrule prior court rulings which interpreted the Arizona Constitution to say that initiative organizers need be only in substantial compliance with election laws. That meant that technical flaws, ranging from the wrong type size or page margins to voters signing with initials instead of their full names, did not automatically void petitions.
Desai called the change in law a "legislative power grab.''
She argued, unsuccessfully, that it violates constitutional rights if initiative organizers have to wait until they were in danger of having a measure thrown off the ballot before they can contest the law they contend interferes with their ability to put measure on the ballot.
Desai also said the issue is not academic for her clients because each has been involved in putting measures on the ballot in the past. They include the Animal Defense League of Arizona, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, the Arizona Advocacy Network, and Friends of ASBA, the initials which stand for Arizona School Boards Association.