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It all depends on what the definition of the word "legislation" is.
Depending on how the Utah Supreme Court defines it, an initiative recently disallowed by Salt Lake City could be put to voters, asking them whether corporations have constitutional rights like people and whether money is free speech.
The conundrum comes in the wake of arguments Thursday by third-year University of Utah law student Caleb Proulx. He told the justices that "legislation" is more than making law and can include such things as nonbinding political positions, such as resolutions passed by the state Legislature.
Because Proulx is not a licensed attorney, he cannot represent others. So, he filed on his own behalf as a petitioner for extraordinary writ with the high court.
His case, not coincidentally, is identical to the stance taken by Move to Amend Salt Lake City, a group dedicated to overturning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That opinion allows unlimited corporate and union spending on federal and state elections so long as it's not coordinated with candidate campaigns.
"There is a groundswell of anger across the country right now to overturn Citizens United," Proulx said in an interview.
The Salt Lake City group is affiliated with a national Move to Amend organization that is working in some 90 U.S. cities to put such initiatives before voters. Their ultimate goal is to amend the U.S. Constitution. That requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures.
The initiative movement in cities was calculated to bring new attention and heat to Citizens United.
But Salt Lake City refused to put Move to Amend's resolution on the ballot because although the organization had gathered over 7,100 signatures, its petition didn't meet Utah law, according to City Attorney Ed Rutan. He advised the Salt Lake City Council that state statute says initiatives are legislation and therefore must create law, according to a widely accepted interpretation.
Move to Amend's petition doesn't do that. It seeks only to ask voters to endorse or reject these statements:
1 • Only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights.
2 • Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting free speech.
"The legislative power of the people is the same as the Legislature's," Proulx said, citing the Utah Constitution.
The City Council is sympathetic to the group and other citizens who want to put issues to voters, said Chairman Soren Simonsen.
The council had briefly discussed whether it should change city ordinances to allow such an initiative to go on the ballot.
"The council has not had a change of heart," Simonsen said Thursday. "But we wanted to wait until this ruling came out before moving forward."
The city attorney asked the high court for a ruling by Aug. 30 to allow time to put the issue on the ballot if the justices allowed it.