Judge rules against foes of Utah's initiative law
Court • Ruling is a blow to Merrill Cook's group seeking to put E-Verify issue on ballot.
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A group attempting to get an employee-verification measure on Utah's Nov. 6 ballot lost its lawsuit Friday after a judge ruled that new state requirements for qualifying an initiative doesn't infringe upon free speech rights.

"The laws do not limit the ability of citizens to raise issues and initiate political discussions," 3rd District Judge Randall Skanchy wrote in his ruling.

The case centered around former Republican Congressman Merrill Cook's attempt to qualify a ballot measure for November that would require the state to adopt a tough E-Verify law in an attempt to halt the hiring of illegal immigrants for work in Utah.

Utah currently has an E-Verify law on the books, but it has no penalties. Cook's measure is similar to Arizona's E-Verify law, where business licenses could be revoked if employers are caught hiring people not authorized to work in the United States.

Cook argued in court that a law signed by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2011 restricts free speech because it significantly curbed the ability of volunteers to gather enough signatures to qualify initiatives for the ballot.

To get a measure on the ballot under the new law, signatures must be gathered within 316 days and their number must equal at least 10 percent of the votes cast for president. Before, it was 10 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election and the time frame to collect signatures could extend out to as long as three years.

Cook said the new law, SB165, was a "cynical ploy" by the Legislature to quash ballot initiatives — especially E-Verify. The Legislature had a tough E-Verify bill introduced in the past session, but it died in committee.

In response to Skanchy's ruling, Cook said the judge didn't understand the relationship between the petition process and free speech.

"He's accepted a very narrow definition of free speech," said Cook, who contends that free speech on an issue means being able to sign a petition and vote on it, not just talk about it.

Cook argued in court that the "measure of public support is the ballot box. We're trying to get it to the ballot box."

Thom Roberts, assistant attorney general, was pleased with the decision.

"The governor and attorney general are strong proponents of free speech and don't want to inhibit their rights or ability to make their position known and persuade people," Roberts said. "But they don't have a First Amendment right to have an initiative on the ballot. They do have the right to make the pitch to people."

Under the new law, the initiative is about 5,000 signatures short of qualifying.

Cook said his group, Citizens Aligned to Secure Utah's Prosperity, will now file in the Utah Supreme Court. They argued the case there in June but the Supreme Court ruled they should've filed in District Court first.

Cook said he thinks it now would be "next to impossible" to get the measure on the November ballot.

dmontero@sltrib.com

Twitter: @davemontero