Supreme Court tries to mediate ballot questions fight
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- July 31, 2012 - 12:22 PM
The Minnesota Supreme Court tried again on Tuesday to sort out a dispute between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the DFL Secretary of State over two hot-button constitutional amendments.
At issue in Tuesday's oral arguments were who has the power to write the titles voters will see in bold-faced print on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Voters are to decide whether to permanently ban same-sex marriage and whether to change the state's election laws, including a requirement that voters to show a valid, government-issued photo ID.
Legislators supporting the two amendments accused Secretary of State Mark Ritchie of distorting their intent by choosing titles to the amendments that differed from those adopted by the Legislature. Ritchie has responded that state law requires the Secretary of State to write titles.
Justice G. Barry Anderson, referring to another dispute involving the voting amendment that the court is struggling with, referred to ""constant conflict with the Legislature and the Secretary of State" over such issues. "We're going to have separation of powers cases every summer," he said.
The six justices, acting without retiring member Helen Meyer, who is not participating in the amendment cases, heard Jordan Lorence of Alliance Defending Freedom, in Washington D.C., representing the legislators and pro-amendment groups, argue that it is the Legislature's sole prerogative to write the titles to proposed constitutional amendments.
Solicitor General Alan Gilbert, representing Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson, said state law has given the title-writing task to the Secretary of State since 1919. To change that process and overturn that law, he said, could jeopardize all constitutional amendments adopted since then.
The Legislature titled the marriage amendment "Recognition of marriage solely between one man and one woman." Ritchie's proposed title is: "Limiting the status of marriage to opposite sex couples."
The Legislature titled the voting amendment "Photo identification required for voting." Ritchie changed it to: "Changes to in-person & absentee voting & voter registration; provisional ballots."
The justices are already wrestling with a related case over the ballot question legislators chose for the voting amendment, which foes claim is misleading. That case emerged Tuesday, when justices Paul Anderson and Alan Page suggested one solution to both issues might be to submit the entire text of the proposed constitutional amendments to voters, rather than ballot questions describing the amendments.
No decisions were announced on Tuesday, but the court is expected to rule by mid-to-late August.
Justice Christopher Dietzen said he viewed the "crux of the case" involving the titles as what the state Constitution means when it says the Legislature has the power to "propose" constitutional amendments that are then submitted directly to voters. He asked if "propose" referred to all aspects of an amendment, including its title.
Chief Justice Lori Skjerven Gildea made it clear she sides with the Legislature. "I think this is a deal between the Legislative branch and the people of Minnesota, and that's that," she said.
Lawyer Erick Kaardal, representing the legislators along with Lorence, questioned Ritchie's choice of words on the voting amendment. He noted that while the words "photographic identification" are key to the amendment, they do not appear in Ritchie's proposed title.
Ritchie issued a statement saying he appreciate the court's "effort to address the separation of powers issue" and he is looking forward "to their decision and specific instructions."
"As the Attorney General's counsel explained before the court, providing a title for each proposed Constitutional Amendment has been the responsibility of the Minnesota Secretary of State since 1919," his statement read. "Under state statutes no other agency or branch of state government currently has this authority."
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