BOISE — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that an Idaho group must stop collecting online signatures for an education funding initiative for the November ballot.
The court ruled in favor of Republican Gov. Brad Little’s request that a district court’s order allowing online signatures be stayed until the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals hears the case and makes a ruling. Arguments before that court are scheduled for the middle of August in the expedited case.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court upheld Idaho’s sovereignty over its election and initiative processes,” Little said in a statement. “It is important that initiatives follow the laws set by the Idaho Legislature so we can ensure those initiatives that get on the ballot are legitimate and have significant support throughout Idaho.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling ends for now Reclaim Idaho’s attempt to collect enough signatures during the coronavirus pandemic for the initiative seeking to raise $170 million for K-12 education. It would raise Idaho’s corporate tax rate and increase taxes on individuals making $250,000 or more annually.
But Luke Mayville of Reclaim Idaho, a group that backs initiatives and successfully got Medicaid expansion on the ballot several years ago that ultimately became law, said his group would continue collecting online signatures.
The Supreme Court’s “decision only means that county clerks will not be required to verify signatures during the next two weeks,” he said.
Mayville said the group was confident the appeals court would rule in its favor in mid-August, and signatures collected between now and then “could very well be valid.”
Howver, Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissenting opinion wrote that “the stay granted today puts a halt to their signature-collection efforts.”
The Idaho attorney general’s office declined to comment on whether signatures collected between now and an appeals court ruling in Reclaim Idaho’s favor would be valid.
Idaho does not allow online signatures for ballot initiatives. The state has argued in court documents that it undermines the election process.
Reclaim Idaho has about half of the 57,000 signatures it needs and an Aug. 26 deadline to collect the rest.
The Republican governor filed an appeal to the Supreme Court earlier this month after the appeals court rejected his request to stay a district court’s order allowing online signatures until the case is decided on its merits.
The Supreme Court cited case precedent that states retain leeway to protect the initiative process.
“Nothing in the Constitution requires Idaho or any other State to provide for ballot initiatives,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. He also wrote that there’s “a fair prospect that the Court will set aside the District Court order.”
Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh concurred in granting the stay.Reclaim Idaho in the lawsuit filed last month said Little’s statewide stay-at-home order in late March because of the pandemic didn’t include exceptions for ballot initiative signature-gathering.
The group in the lawsuit against Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, also a Republican, said they violated the First Amendment-protected process of signature gathering, a form of political speech.
U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with Reclaim Idaho and ordered the state to choose between accepting online signatures or simply putting the education funding initiative on the November ballot. When Idaho didn’t respond, Winmill ordered the state to collect online signatures or allow Reclaim Idaho to do so.
Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying the appeals court ruling was only weeks away and even with a favorable ruling Reclaim Idaho would have a difficult if not impossible task of collecting the remaining signatures by the deadline.
Sotomayor wrote that the state could more easily omit the initiative from the ballot if the appeals court rules in Little’s favor, but signature gatherers Reclaim Idaho and initiative backers, “on the other hand, are in a far more precarious position.”