A district court ruling issued Tuesday prevents, for now, placing a sweeping ethics reform initiative on the November ballot. But the Utah Supreme Court likely will have the final say.
"We will appeal, and ask for an expedited review so that we have a possibility of getting on the ballot," said Alan L. Smith, attorney for Utahns for Ethical Government, which pushed the initiative.
Third District judge Todd Shaughnessy ruled Tuesday that the UEG petition is subject to a law that the Legislature passed months after the group had finished collecting its signatures, which increased the number of signatures required. The UEG says it likely does not have sufficient signatures to meet those requirements, but could have met standards in place when it began and finished its drive.
"They didn't just change the rules on us mid-stream when we were collecting signatures," Smith said. "They waited until we had finished collecting signatures and had enough to hit the target and then they moved the target."
Shaughnessy ruled that state law and court precedent required UEG to collect signatures equal in number to 10 percent of all votes cast in the 2008 presidential election in 26 of 29 state Senate districts as required by a law the Legislature passed in 2011.
Before that, state law required using the previous gubernatorial election as the baseline for determining how many signatures are needed. While races for governor and president usually occur at the same time, fewer people actually vote in the governor's race.
The UEG said it easily had enough signatures if the yardstick was the 2010 special governor's race, which occurred after the group began collecting signatures but before it was finished.
It said it likely had enough if the 2008 governor's election was used which was the most recent election when it registered and began its petition drive. UEG says it collected about 130,000 signatures, but the state certified only around 100,000 as coming from voters who are properly registered.
Shaughnessy wrote that previous court decisions held that the law in effect at the time signatures are finally counted rules, not laws in effect when the petition drive began. The signature count was finalized only last month even though they were turned in long ago.
Smith argued that delays by the state in producing a final count allowed the new law to take effect after petitions were turned in, and to place requirements out of reach. Assistant Attorney General Thomas Roberts argued that delays by UEG in its lawsuit slowed the process.
The ruling Tuesday follows two other key rulings that Shaughnessy made in the case last month.
First, he ruled that the law gave UEG a full year to collect petitions. That was a win for the UEG, which initially was aiming for the 2010 ballot. When it saw it would fall short, it continued collecting signatures to try to qualify for 2012.
Second, Shaughnessy ruled that UEG could not count signatures it had collected electronically a win for the state. UEG needed to count them to qualify in some scenarios, depending on which election was used as a baseline.
The initiative if ever approved would make huge changes in state election and ethics laws.
It would ban direct campaign donations from corporations, which are now allowed in state races. It would limit donations currently unlimited to $2,500 per individual or $5,000 per political action committee over a two-year election cycle.
It also would ban politicians from using campaign donations for any personal use, or from passing them along to other politicians. And it would create an independent ethics commission to police violations, instead of allowing lawmakers to police themselves.