Utah ethics battle could be headed to courts

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SALT LAKE CITY -- The political battle over ethics reform on Utah's Capitol Hill is fast becoming a legal showdown as well. The fight has spawned no fewer than four major legal questions; some, or perhaps all of them, could ultimately be decided in the courts.

Advocates of legislative ethics reform failed to get enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in 2010. Still, they believe state law allows them to gather signatures until mid-August

"We've been told by representatives in the Lieutenant Governor's Office that our reading of the statute is consistent with theirs. There's another group that I believe has been given that statement in writing," says David Irvine, attorney for Utahns for Ethical Government.

Ultimately, it will be the call of the state elections office, which is overseen by the lieutenant governor. It's safe to say that inside the halls and offices of state government, this is an extremely sensitive issue. In fact, the state elections office declined to do an interview Thursday.

The office's administrator issued a statement saying there are legal arguments on both sides about whether state law permits Utahns for Ethical Government to continue collecting signatures, and it would be premature to comment.

"Both sides are passionate about either having it on or having it off, and the problem is that there are good arguments on both sides -- which makes it an interesting story and more interesting legal case, potentially," says Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.

In all, the larger petition fight raises at least four pressing legal questions:

  1. What is deadline for collecting signatures?
  2. Should petition signatures be kept private?
  3. Are e-signatures valid?
  4. Have lawmakers set the bar too high for citizens to get any initiative on the ballot?

"It's a battle that will rage for the next few years," Jowers says.

Next week, in federal court, a judge will hold a hearing over a one of the key issues in this fight: whether the names of people who have signed petitions should be kept private or made public.

E-mail: jdaley@ksl.com

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