Curbs on ballot initiatives struck down by justices

6-3 ruling limits states' controls on signature collectors

January 13, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court blunted yesterday the effort of states to cut back on voter initiatives -- particularly those promoted by out-of-state groups -- by striking down controls on people who solicit signatures for ballot measures.

States, the court made clear by a 6-3 vote, act unconstitutionally when they adopt measures that significantly reduce the number of people who can be recruited to gather signatures, thus reducing the number of voters contacted and cutting down chances that a proposal will get onto the ballot. Although states have some leeway to control the voter-initiative process, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, the court will "guard against hindrances to political conversations and the exchange of ideas."

A signature-gatherer, when asking for support for a measure, is engaging one-on-one in "core political speech" fully protected by the First Amendment, the court said.

Ruling on three provisions adopted in Colorado in an effort to attack potential fraud when out-of-state interests mount initiative drives in the state, the court nullified these restrictions:

By a unanimous vote, a requirement that all those who circulate petitions for ballot measures must wear an ID badge showing their name.

By a 6-3 vote, a requirement that gatherers must be registered to vote in Colorado.

By a 6-3 vote, a requirement that supporters of measures disclose who petition-gatherers were and how much each got paid.

The court did not decide whether a state may require gatherers actually to live in the state, because that was not at issue this time. But Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in a partial dissent, complained that the court had put that kind of restriction in doubt, too.

The court also did not rule on states' power to control those who gather signatures to nominate candidates. At least 19 states require those gatherers to be registered voters. Maryland is not one of those states.

Although the court was unanimous in voiding the badge requirement, the dissenters on the other points complained strongly that the court was making it too difficult for states to police the initiative process.

Rehnquist noted that the initiative, once a widely admired method of citizen participation, "has come to be more and more influenced by out-of-state interests which employ professional firms doing a nationwide business."

He and the other dissenters, Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sandra Day O'Connor, argued that states should have wider authority to confine the initiative to individuals linked to the state's own political process.

In a separate, 8-1 decision, the court ruled that if passengers suffer an injury or lose baggage during an international flight, they have no legal remedy unless compensation is available under a 1929 treaty, the Warsaw Convention.

If no such remedy is available because, for example, no bodily injury resulted, then a separate lawsuit in an American state court for mental distress or harm is barred, according to the ruling. The ruling came in the case of a New York City woman who was subjected to a body search -- including her breasts and groin -- and was required to partially strip during a security search before boarding an El Al Airlines flight in New York, bound for Tel Aviv.

The search turned up no evidence barring her boarding, but she later sought to sue. The court said her lawsuit was barred by recent Senate approval of a change in the treaty that forbids such lawsuits if the Convention supplies no recovery.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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