‘Tyranny of the minority’: Idaho Supreme Court rules voter initiative law unconstitutional

Idaho Supreme Court justices on Monday unanimously ruled the state’s new law on citizen-led ballot initiatives to be unconstitutional and said it infringed on the public’s right to enact laws outside of the Idaho Legislature.

The opinion ruled in favor of Reclaim Idaho, the organization that spearheaded the successful Medicaid expansion initiative in 2018 and sued the Idaho Legislature in May. The Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution, a coalition of mostly Idaho attorneys, also joined Reclaim Idaho’s lawsuit.

The state’s highest court ruled that the law would have infringed on a fundamental right for a citizen-led initiative. The Legislature and Secretary of State’s Office “failed to present a compelling state interest for limiting that right,” the Supreme Court wrote.

“Ultimately, the effect of SB 1110 is to prevent a perceived, yet unsubstantiated fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ by replacing it with an actual ‘tyranny of the minority,’ ” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion, adding that the law conflicts with “the democratic ideals that form the bedrock of the constitutional republic created by the Idaho Constitution.”

The new law is now void. The Idaho Legislature will have to pay Reclaim Idaho and the committee their attorney fees for the lawsuit, on top of the fees paid its own attorney to defend the law.

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said he was surprised and disappointed by the ruling.

“The Idaho Constitution says that the Idaho Legislature shall control the initiative process, and now it would appear that the Supreme Court is saying the constitution says something different than that,” Winder told the Statesman.

Idaho law would have made initiatives more challenging

Republican lawmakers in April approved a law that would have required citizen-led initiatives to gather signatures from 6% of registered voters from each of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts. Prior to the change, the state required that signatures come from 6% of voters in at least 18 districts, and 6% of voters statewide.

Reclaim Idaho is gathering signatures for enhanced K-12 education funding. Other Idaho groups are also trying to gather enough signatures for an initiative to legalize medical marijuana.

In the past 10 years, only two citizen-led initiatives have made it on Idaho’s general election ballot. That’s two out of the 14 voter petitions that circulated, the Supreme Court justices wrote. Deborah Ferguson, an attorney who represented Reclaim Idaho, had argued a 90% failure rate shows the process “is already near impossible.”

Reclaim Idaho was also sponsoring a measure that would have repealed the state’s 18-district requirement. Luke Mayville, co-founder of Reclaim Idaho, told the Statesman on Monday that the organization will instead pivot to focus entirely on its education initiative after the court ruling.

Republican Gov. Brad Little signed the law in April but expressed concerns about its constitutionality. Little vetoed a similar law that would have made citizen-led initiatives more challenging in 2019.

Little said in an emailed statement Monday that he signed this year’s bill because it presented a much closer call and “gave rural Idaho a greater voice in the initiative and referendum process.”

“In considering future legislation, I encourage the Idaho Legislature to ensure that the rights secured by the constitution remain accessible to the people while also securing that each initiative and referendum have an appropriate level of statewide support,” Little said.

Mayville said in a news release that thousands of Idaho residents are “breathing sighs of relief today” and that the court fulfilled its obligation to protect citizens against an “assault” on their rights by the Legislature.

“Nearly every time in our history that our Legislature attempted to eliminate the initiative process, either the governor or the courts stepped up to protect the rights of the people,” Mayville said. “Today’s decision adds a new chapter to that history, and future generations of Idahoans will look back on the court’s decision with gratitude.”

Jim Jones, co-founder of the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution, and a former Idaho Supreme Court justice and attorney general, told the Statesman that he believes the opinion is a landmark ruling that could set a precedent for other states facing lawsuits over citizen-led initiatives.

“It is an absolute slam dunk for the right of the initiative and the referendum,” Jones said.

William Myers, an attorney representing the Idaho Legislature, had tried to paint Reclaim Idaho’s argument as a “false dichotomy” of the people versus the Legislature. Myers pointed out that the people elect state legislators to represent them. Myers said the public’s available recourse is to vote their legislators out of office.

But Ferguson argued that the bill was intended to snuff out a constitutional right in the state under the guise that it would help rural voters.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said in a statement Monday that House leaders believed the new law would have increased voter involvement in the ballot initiative process, “especially in the corners of the state too often forgotten by some.”

“We believe that all the 35 legislative districts, every part of Idaho, should be included in this important process,” Bedke said. “Unfortunately, the Supreme Court apparently disagrees.”

Democratic leaders issued a statement applauding the court for its decision. All Democrats in the House and Senate voted against the bill.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said Republicans never should have passed the law.

“Elected representatives should be working to protect the people’s constitutional rights, not take those rights away, as the Idaho GOP did here,” Rubel said. “I am very proud that every Democrat voted against this bill because we recognize the importance of citizens’ rights, and we’ll continue to fight for them.”