SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Utah Supreme Court has upheld the Legislature's tough new signature-gathering rules for citizen initiatives.
Two years after the court threw out legislative restrictions on the initiative process, it ruled Tuesday that a 2003 law served a "legitimate legislative purpose."
"The bottom line is the court has affirmed the right of the Legislature to place ever higher hurdles in the way of citizens who want to put legislation in front of the people. They can make it as difficult as they want to," said Dave Jones, spokesman for the Safe Havens for Learning coalition, which is pushing an initiative to allow schools and churches to decide whether to ban concealed weapons.
The coalition had sued, contesting the 2003 law, and 3rd District Judge J. Dennis Frederick ruled against the coalition last June.
The Supreme Court upheld the lower court decision.
"While we continue to recognize that the initiative right is fundamental under our state constitution, we also note that the ability to legislate through the initiative process is solely a state-created right and would not exist in the absence of a state provision creating that right," Associate Chief Justice Matthew Durrant wrote.
"This right, though fundamental under our state constitution, is not unfettered, but comes with a built-in limitation," he said.
In August 2002, the justices threw out legislators' 1998 requirement that initiative supporters gather signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in 20 of 29 counties, concluding that formula unfairly weighted rural voters' signatures over those of urban voters.
Under the new law, petitioners must collect a number of signatures statewide equal to 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the most recent governor's election. They also must gather signatures equal in number to 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote in 26 of Utah's 29 Senate districts.
Because Senate districts are basically equal in population but counties are not, the high court found that the 20-county requirement had the "effect of diluting the power of urban registered voters" while the Senate-district requirement "ensures that there is support for a particular initiative spread, more or less, evenly throughout the state."
Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts, who defended the law, said, "Time will tell how people will utilize the initiative process. I'm not sure if the death of the grass-roots initiative effort is being prematurely called."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)