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A term-limits group sued Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday seeking to overcome his rejection of a proposed petition drive that could limit length of service for appointees to hundreds of state boards.
Utah Term Limits NOW! filed suit directly with the Utah Supreme Court and asked it to retain jurisdiction, trying to overcome Cox's ruling last month that said the petition drive is "patently unconstitutional" stopping it before it started.
"We need a certain amount of time to gather signatures. We do not have time for this to go through various levels of the courts" and still put it on the ballot next year, said Rick Larsen, chairman of the group, explaining why it went directly to the state high court.
"We have until April to collect [about 140,000] signatures," Larsen said.
Last month, Cox ruled that because the Utah Constitution gives the governor authority to appoint people to numerous boards and commissions, "any change or limit to that authority requires a change to the Constitution."
The group proposed a mere statutory change through the petition, which Cox ruled was "patently unconstitutional" and would instead require a constitutional amendment, which only the Legislature can initiate.
But Larsen said Cox made his ruling "offering no precedent" by the courts.
"Their real option should be to allow citizens to vote on this. Then if it makes the ballot and passes, they have every right to challenge it legally. But instead they have taken this pre-emptive step," he said.
The group's 32-page lawsuit contends it is not seeking to strip the governor of his right to make appointments, but that Cox is stripping the right of people to make policy by ballot initiative.
The term-limits group is also separately asking the Legislature to pass and send to voters a state constitutional amendment to limit terms for the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, auditor and treasurer to two consecutive four-year terms.
Organizers took that approach out of an abundance of caution because various court decisions disagree about whether term limits for elected officials can be imposed by simple statute instead of a constitutional amendment.
The group has not sought term limits for Utah's part-time legislators. Utah has seen a variety of efforts to limit terms through the years, including one term-limit law passed by the Legislature that was repealed before it actually had any effect.
In 1994, political maverick Merrill Cook pushed a voter initiative to limit terms, which appeared to have broad public support. Legislators short-circuited that effort by passing a less-strict limit. The law was repealed in 2003 before preventing a single person from seeking re-election.
Larsen has said that the push for term limits is not in reaction to any current officeholder, but seeks to curb what James Madison called a lust for power that comes with long service. "It's not about anybody or any office. It's about human nature."