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Missouri high court: referendum laws hinder voters’ rights

February 8, 2022 GMT

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that state lawmakers have illegally limited citizens’ right to weigh in on laws, a decision that could make it easier for people to force a statewide vote on laws they don’t like in the future.

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

“The legislature must not be permitted to use procedural formalities to interfere with or impede this constitutional right that is so integral to Missouri’s democratic system of government,” Judge Mary Russell wrote.

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

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

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Critics of the abortion law had sued after running out of time to collect signatures to put the measure to a public vote. They blamed 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 during which the law passed. A 1997 state law requires petitions to contain an official ballot title certified by the secretary of state, and another law sets forth procedural deadlines for the secretary of state to approve that ballot title.

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

Ashcroft had argued that even with such a tight turnaround time, it’s still possible to collect enough signatures to put a law to a referendum vote.

But Russell wrote that especially for people who can’t afford to pay workers to gather signatures, the deadlines are a hurdle to access the referendum process.

“The Missouri Constitution guarantees the right of referendum to all Missouri citizens, not just those capable of raising the necessary funds to complete a signature-collection effort within the tightest of timeframes,” she wrote.

A secretary of state spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment on the ruling Tuesday.

Russell also pointed out that lawmakers can delay passing laws until the end of the roughly five-month legislative session to run out the clock on potential referendum efforts, essentially giving lawmakers “the power to make any referendum effort untenable.”

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Judges Brent Powell and Zel Fischer dissented, arguing that overturning the referendum laws was an overstep.

Powell wrote that in order to toss out a law as unconstitutional, plaintiffs must prove there’s no way for the law to be applied constitutionally. He wrote that there are some circumstances in which the ballot title deadline wouldn’t interfere with referendum efforts, such as when lawmakers pass legislation early in session.

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

Voters in 2018 overturned a new law banning mandatory union fees in Missouri, thwarting a longstanding effort by GOP lawmakers to pass the measure. And following years of inaction by lawmakers, voters used the state’s initiative petition process to expand eligibility for the Medicaid health care program and allow medicinal marijuana.

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

The 2019 abortion law that prompted the latest legal fight sought to ban the procedure at eight weeks of pregnancy, except for cases of medical emergencies. It included a stairstep of other abortion bans at 14, 18, or 20 weeks should one of the earlier-term restrictions get struck down in court. It also sought to ban abortions based solely on race, sex or a diagnosis indicating Down syndrome.

The abortion law has never been enforced, because a federal judge blocked it a day before it was scheduled to take effect.

The full 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments last year on an appeal of the injunction. A ruling has not yet been issued.