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The Utah Supreme Court tossed a bid by Utahns For Ethical Government to get their rigorous ethics initiative on the November ballot, apparently dooming the effort for this election cycle.
The Court, in a one-paragraph order issued Tuesday, said that the district court should have granted the request by the Lieutenant Governor's Office to dismiss the lawsuit.
The high court's decision ends a protracted battle that began in August 2009, pitting the Utah Legislature against a group of former lawmakers and good-government crusaders who argued that the Utah Legislature lacked the necessary ethical guide rails and oversight.
The order, signed by Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, said a full opinion on the case would come later.
"This is a huge disappointment, because the practical effect of the ruling … is that the statewide initiative right written into the [Utah] Constitution has pretty much been erased by statute," said David Irvine, an attorney for Utahns For Ethical Government and former Republican legislator. "We had hundreds of volunteers put thousands of hours into this effort and if a grassroots group like ours couldn't qualify this initiative for a statewide ballot, I don't think it can be done."
In 2011, the Utah Legislature clarified that signatures that were gathered electronically could not be counted one of the issues that UEG had pushed for and that the threshold to qualify for the ballot would be based on a percentage of votes cast in a presidential year, effectively raising the bar.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said his goal in that bill was to clarify the Legislature's original intent, not to make it harder to qualify for the ballot, which he said can still be done.
He said Irvine was part of the group that gathered enough signatures to put a referendum rejecting school vouchers on the ballot, and the bar is not significantly different.
"That seems rather disingenuous from someone who was involved in a successful referendum … to say it is impossible," Bramble said. "It's appropriate for the referendum and initiative process to have a relatively high bar. It's a relatively high bar to pass legislation in Utah today."
Asked if the ruling was the end of the road for the ethics drive, Irvine said: "It certainly is for 2012."
UEG had sought to use the initiative process to enact tough ethics rules, banning gifts and imposing a waiting period on legislators to become lobbyists, creating an independent ethics commission and capping campaign contributions.
To get it passed, the group needed to gather about 100,000 signatures from across the state.
Attorneys for UEG argued the law gave them a year to collect the signatures, meaning the deadline would have been August 2010. But the lieutenant governor and attorney general argued the deadline was actually April 2010, a deadline that both sides agree UEG did not meet.
In Tuesday's order, the Supreme Court sided with the state that the deadline should have been April and, therefore, UEG failed to qualify for the ballot. Several other disputes including exactly how many signatures needed to be gathered were also presented to the court, but became moot once the Supreme Court ruled on the deadline.
The Supreme Court's order only pertains to the current UEG case. Assistant Attorney General Thom Roberts, who represented the lieutenant governor in the case, said that the statute has been changed since UEG began collecting signatures to clarify that groups only get one election cycle to gather signatures.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he has argued for years that the UEG effort was flawed.
"I'm all for ethics reform, but this proposal was horrendous in so many aspects," he said.
Weiler said it vested five "ethics czars" with the ability to issue subpoenas and use state resources with no outside checks or judicial review. "[It] would basically institute an unconstitutional fourth branch of government, unelected by the people, and that's not ethics reform," he said.
Weiler said the UEG effort, however, prompted the Legislature to enact ethics changes, including capping lobbyist meals at $10 and creating an ethics commission.
"They just didn't know when to end it and declare victory," he said.