Judge McGowan Benchslaps Act 1413

A-lonely-gavelOne of the most offensive bills that the Arkansas General Assembly passed last session was SB 821/Act 1413. This bill, which we warned the legislature about, almost seemed designed to make it more difficult for citizens to pass laws by means of ballot initiatives. Act 1413 created a new set of regulations that controlled the registration, tracking, and training of those who gathered signatures for petitions. Earlier this week, we were very pleased to see Judge McGowan’s decision to the effect that, because Act 1413 blocked Arkansans from exercising their rights to petition their government, it was therefore unconstitutional.

Paul Jacob, who testified as an expert witness in Judge McGowan’s court (in support of the successful plaintiffs), told us:

Judge McGowan’s decision marks a major victory for the people of Arkansas and their access to the initiative petition process. In declaring virtually the entire law unconstitutional and enjoining the Secretary of State from enforcing it, the judge wrote that “the effects of Act 1413 are crushing to the citizens who wish to bring their ideas directly to the people.”

Act 1413 sought to create a cumbersome regulatory regime over paid petition canvassers and add numerous hyper-technical new rules for disqualifying whole petition pages and the otherwise valid signatures of registered voters over innocent mistakes.

Thanks go to the Arkansas Public Law Center and the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for making the lawsuit possible. Much credit also goes to Arkansas’s Amendment 7, the constitutional provision that protects the rights of citizens to petition for initiatives and referendums against any legislative attempts to restrict those rights.

Amendment 7 says that “laws may be enacted to facilitate” the petition process, but that, “No legislation shall be enacted to restrict, hamper or impair the exercise of the rights herein reserved to the people.”

What will happen now? One possibility is that the Secretary of State or the Attorney General might ask Judge McGowan for a full trial in hopes of changing her initial view of Act 1413. Alternatively, one of them could appeal her decision to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Paul Jacob is president of Citizens in Charge; you can see more extensive commentary on the McGowan decision on its blog.

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