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The Utah Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on whether new guidelines on gathering signatures for a ballot initiative posed an unreasonable burden on petition passers.

Former Congressman Merrill Cook brought the case before the court after his anti-illegal immigration group — Citizens Aligned to Secure Utah's Prosperity — argued a 2011 law passed by the Legislature severely reduced the time frame for gathering signatures and upped the number of required signatures.

"These rules are absolutely devastating to the constitutional rights of the citizens of Utah," Cook said.

Cook came about 5,000 signatures short in Salt Lake County for getting an initiative on the ballot that would've required employers to use an electronic system — known as E-Verify — that allows them to determine whether they are hiring a person with the legal status to work in the United States. Arguing before the five justices, Cook said the new law put his group in the untenable position of having to gather signatures during harsh winter months. The justices took the case under advisement for a later ruling.

Joining Cook was Mara Brenenstall, a 77-year-old who collected about 4,000 signatures on her own and said "during frigid Arctic blasts" they struggled to stay warm and couldn't get people to stop and listen to their pitch because people didn't want to stop and talk or sign in inclement weather.

"It was hard on the volunteers — many of who are elderly," she said.

But Thom Roberts, assistant attorney general arguing in defense of Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, said because the signatures were being gathered in Salt Lake County, the case should've been filed in Utah's 3rd District Court.

Roberts also argued that the Legislature has the right to set the parameters for signature collections and that the guidelines under SB165 were well within constitutional standards.

Prior to the new law, Cook said there was a three-year time limit to get something on the ballot and the number of signatures required was tied to votes cast for governor in the previous election cycle.

In 2010, there were 653,274 votes cast in the race for Utah governor.

Now it's 10 percent of the votes cast for president and there is a 316-day window to collect signatures. In 2008, there were 971,185 Utah votes cast in the presidential election.

Cook said he began gathering signatures in June 2011 and the deadline was April 15, 2012. Under the old guidelines, his group would have had three years and three cycles of good weather to pick up about 64,000 signatures. Under the new law, they had nine months to get more than 97,000 signatures.

Twitter: @davemontero

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