Judge Upholds Part of New Initiatives Law

Judge Upholds Part of New Initiatives Law

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A judge has upheld part of the state's new initiatives law but left open the possibility that a more comprehensive challenge could be mounted to the law.

Third District Judge J. Dennis Frederick said in the ruling issued last week, "This may not be the best case for challenging the constitutionality of the new Election Code requirements.

"Although the burdens remaining to be addressed at this juncture do not in and of themselves create an undue burden, if at some later date all five requirements were to be considered by the court, the outcome might not be the same," he said.

The Utah Safe to Learn-Safe to Worship Coalition has been trying to get an initiative on the ballot to ban guns from schools and churches.

Last August, the Utah Supreme Court threw out lawmakers' requirement adopted in 1998 that initiative supporters had to gather signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in 20 of 29 counties.

This year, the Legislature shifted the geographical requirement to state Senate districts and also required that initiative leaders hold seven public meetings around the state and gather their signatures within one year. The new law also prohibits filing similar initiatives for two years and it allows initiative opponents to lobby those who sign petitions to remove their signatures.

In the rush to beat the rules' implementation deadline of May 5, Safe to Learn filed an initiative petition with Lt. Gov. Olene Walker's Office on March 21. Walker concluded the coalition as well as nine other groups circulating initiative petitions have one year to collect signatures from 10 percent of voters in 26 of 29 senate districts. The rest of the rules are on hold.

The coalition challenged Walker's interpretation of the rules, complaining the strict requirements were being applied retroactively. It asked the court to declare the rules unconstitutional or allow them to collect signatures under the old rules.

Frederick refused, saying the Senate-district rule does not counter the Utah Supreme Court's 2002 ruling nor unduly burden the initiative process. And until state officials try to apply the rest of the rules, the district court cannot intervene, he wrote.

"If and when (the coalition) submits the signature sheets to the county clerks, they will apply the law in effect at that time to determine if there are sufficient signatures," Frederick wrote. "This is not a retroactive application of the law, but rather, the application of law in effect at the time the governmental decision is made."

Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts defended the state rules. "Judge Frederick appropriately accepted the lieutenant governor's reading of the rules. I'm comfortable," he said.

Coalition attorney John Pearce is considering an appeal.

"It's telling that the Supreme Court called the initiative right a 'fundamental right' no less than eight times. But the words 'fundamental right' don't make it into the trial court's opinion," Pearce said. "It's a case that needs to be appealed."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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