Merrill Cook questions petition signature deadlines before high court

Published: Wednesday, June 27 2012 5:51 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A former Congressman frustrated with a legislative change that affects how long petition signatures can be gathered for potential initiatives took his case to the Utah Supreme Court Wednesday.

Merrill Cook, who once represented Utah in the U.S. House of Representatives, told the state's high court that a change in statute implemented March 10, 2011, that allowed 316 days for the initiative process was "absolutely devastating to the constitutional rights of the citizens of Utah."

Cook said he and those seeking signatures for their lawful employment initiative aimed at curtailing the hiring of illegal immigrants were stymied by the new parameters and are asking the court to issue an order giving them either 45 days before the 2012 election to gather signatures or 120 days before the 2014 election.

Currently, those seeking to get an initiative on the ballot have 316 days or until April 15, whichever comes first, to gather their signatures. Cook said he and the other members of the political issues committee Citizens Aligned To Secure Utah's Prosperity were not able to utilize the fair weather months to do their work.

"Give us six months instead of eight and a half months, but give us spring and summer," Cook told the justices. "At least go back to what the law was before March 10, 2011. ... It's not how many months, it's when."

CATSUP member Mara Brenenstall told the justices she wore multiple layers of clothing in her endeavors to gather signatures, but she knew of many others who supported the cause but couldn't handle the weather. Paul Brugger, of South Jordan, said there were other struggles to find a county facility that would allow them to use their space to set up tables.

Before, Cook said petitioners had three years or two election cycles to gather signatures and get their initiatives qualified. That was later reduced to one year, a move assistant attorney general Thom Roberts pointed out was upheld by the Utah Supreme Court.

"There are a lot of initiatives that when they pass, they pass quickly," he said. "The Legislature must put together rules, regulations and a timeframe to do this."

Roberts said he felt the time allotted by the Legislature was sufficient and achieved the Legislature's purpose. Justice Christine Durham questioned whether there was a timeframe requirement that could be considered unconstitutional.

Roberts argued that would only apply if a situation became "so burdensome no group could function within that timeframe." This prompted Durham to refer to an argument presented by Cook, who said, "This law will be OK if you're very wealthy and can pay for signatures."

Cook was adamant that the Legislative change was planned as a way to curtail the efforts of those like himself. He said citizens have the same rights as politicians to create laws.

"Would it be fair to say legislators' purpose was to make it more difficult to gather and acquire signatures?" Chief Justice Matthew Durrant asked Roberts.

"I think they wanted a showing of sufficient public support to put issues on the ballot," Roberts said. "The restrictions can make things more difficult, but that doesn't mean they are unconstitutional."

He said every restriction will potentially hurt one group, but initiatives important to the public will garner the support needed to make the ballot on the current schedule.

The high court took the matter under advisement.

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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