Source: Anchorage Daily News (AK)
Author: Nicole Tsong, Anchorage Daily News
Published: September 26, 2003
Copyright: 2003 The Anchorage Daily News
Contact: [email protected]
Ruling: Judge says Division of Elections erred in rejecting initiative booklets.
A Superior Court ruling makes it more likely that voters will be asked next fall to legalize marijuana in Alaska.
Anchorage Judge John Suddock ruled Tuesday that the Division of Elections was wrong to reject, on technical reasons, nearly 200 initiative petition booklets filled with thousands of signatures. Those booklets can't be disqualified based on reporting glitches if it doesn't affect the validity of the signatures, he said.
"Violence would be done to the right to initiative precisely if that regulatory scheme were here strictly enforced," Suddock wrote.
Sponsors say they submitted 484 petition signature booklets with more than 50,000 signatures in November. Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, who oversees elections, tossed out the petition, saying that only 21,737 of the 28,742 signatures needed were certified, according to the lawsuit the sponsors filed.
Suddock ordered the Elections Division to recount the nearly 200 disqualified booklets. He said elections officials knew the marijuana initiative drive had some reporting problems but didn't advise sponsors on how to fix them.
For example, petitioners did not report to elections officials all the booklets and who was circulating them at the right time, so some were disqualified.
"The division was, at least, asleep at the switch," the judge wrote.
Attorney Kenneth Jacobus, who represented the plaintiffs, said the decision means the initiative "pretty much will be on the ballot."
"We feel confident we have plenty of signatures both in the original booklets that were allowed and the ones that are going to be counted now," said Tim Hinterberger, a plaintiff and one of the three main sponsors of the initiative.
When reached Thursday, Leman said the decision in January to reject the booklets was made carefully and he wouldn't do it differently, despite what the judge said.
"What we did was the right thing in applying the law," he said. But "if a court directs us to do something, we'll do it."
Leman said he is opposed to the initiative but he knew the issue was controversial and made sure the state Department of Law reviewed the recommendation before disqualifying the petition.
"We don't have a choice in the Division of Elections in choosing which laws to apply and which laws not to apply," Leman said. "We have to be incredibly fair in how we do everything."
Leman said he wasn't sure if the state planned to appeal the decision. The attorney general's office is reviewing the case and will decide on an appeal, said Theresa Woelk, spokeswoman for Attorney General Greg Renkes.
If the state doesn't appeal the decision, then the signatures will be counted, Woelk said.
The state is already grappling with a different court decision about marijuana.
The Alaska Court of Appeals ruled recently that it is legal for adults to possess less than 4 ounces of marijuana for personal use in Alaska. Renkes has asked the appeals court to hear the case again, arguing that the state was not given a chance to show that marijuana is harmful and that the state has a legitimate interest in restricting its use.
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