Missouri High Court: Referendum Laws Hinder Voters’ Rights

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the people’s right to influence laws passed by the Legislative Assembly have been unlawfully limited by lawmakers themselves, making it easier for voters to overturn General Assembly acts. led by the GOP.

In a 5-2 decision, the justices wrote that the right of Missouri citizens to overrule laws passed by the Legislature is a “fundamental expression of the power held by the people.”

“The Legislature must not be allowed to use procedural formalities to interfere with or fetter this constitutional right which is so integral to Missouri’s democratic system of government,” Justice Mary Russell wrote.

The case stems from a 2019 Missouri law banning most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy.

Tuesday’s decision ultimately won’t affect the fate of the anti-abortion law — which is currently stalled by a separate federal court case — but could make it easier for people to force a statewide vote. about future laws they don’t like.

Critics of the abortion law had filed a lawsuit after running out of time to collect signatures to put the measure to a public vote. They blamed the delays on the Secretary of State’s office.

In Missouri, referendum petitions must be submitted to the secretary of state’s office 90 days after the end of the legislative session in which the law was passed. A 1997 state law requires that petitions contain an official ballot title certified by the Secretary of State, and another law sets procedural time limits for the Secretary of State to approve that ballot title.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the No Bans No Choice group sought to overturn those rules after Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft used his allotted time to approve the ballot title, leaving petition collectors just two weeks to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures. .

Ashcroft had argued that even with such a tight deadline, it is still possible to collect enough signatures to put a law to a referendum vote.

But Russell wrote that, especially for people who cannot afford to pay workers to collect signatures, deadlines are a barrier to accessing the referendum process.

“Missouri’s Constitution guarantees the right of referendum to all citizens of Missouri, not just those capable of raising the funds necessary to complete a signature-collecting effort under the tightest of deadlines,” she said. writing.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state did not immediately comment on the decision on Tuesday.

Russell also pointed out that lawmakers can delay passing laws until the end of the legislative session by about five months to exhaust the time available for potential referendum efforts, essentially giving lawmakers “the power to make any referendum effort untenable”.

Justices Brent Powell and Zel Fischer dissented, arguing that striking down the referendum laws was an overreach.

Powell wrote that to dismiss a law as unconstitutional, plaintiffs must prove that there is no way the law could be constitutionally enforced. He wrote that there are certain circumstances in which the ballot title deadline would not interfere with referendum efforts, such as when lawmakers pass legislation at the start of the session.

Voters and lawmakers in Missouri have been caught in a power struggle for the right to legislate for years.

In 2018, voters struck down a new law banning mandatory union dues in Missouri, thwarting a longstanding effort by GOP lawmakers to pass the measure. And after years of inaction by lawmakers, voters used the state initiative petition process to expand eligibility for the Medicaid health care program and allow medical marijuana.

After voters approved changes to the redistricting process in 2018, lawmakers sent a recast of those changes to the ballot in 2020. Voters ultimately approved lawmakers’ recast.

The 2019 abortion law that sparked the latest legal battle sought to ban the procedure at eight weeks pregnant except in medical emergencies. It included a staircase of further abortion bans at 14, 18 or 20 weeks if any of the earlier restrictions were overturned by a court. He also sought to ban abortions based solely on race, gender, or a diagnosis indicating Down syndrome.

The abortion law was never enforced because a federal judge blocked it a day before it went into effect.

Last year, the 8th United States Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on an appeal of the injunction. A decision has not yet been rendered.

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