Utah Supreme Court mulls whether citizen resolutions can go on election ballot

Published: Thursday, July 26 2012 5:04 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A group seeking to place a citizen-initiated resolution before Salt Lake City voters this year met all the legal requirements but one: State law doesn't allow citizen-initiated ballot resolutions.

Move to Amend wants to ask residents to endorse the idea of a federal constitutional amendment saying that corporations are not people and money is not speech. It seeks to denounce a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.

Salt Lake City put the brakes on the initiative after determining that while Utah permits ballot initiatives that create laws, it doesn't permit those that simply express an opinion.

Law student Caleb Proulx, a member of Move to Amend, challenged the statute and made his case before the Utah Supreme Court on Thursday.

The issue comes down to the definition of the word "legislation." For lawmakers, it means passing not only bills that make laws but nonbinding resolutions that direct policy, he said.

"The people can't do the same thing because courts have interpreted legislation as meaning only law, only something that binds people," Proulx said. "There's a big disparity and that's what we're trying to correct."

Senior city attorney Betsy Haws acknowledged there's tension between the Legislature having power to pass resolutions while people don't. But according to case law, opinions or beliefs are not subject to ballot initiatives.

"If the people said, 'Yes we stand with the Move to Amend movement,' it would have no different impact than if they said, 'No we don't stand with it.' There's nothing binding that is created by the petition as it's written," she said.

Still, Haws said the city isn't unsympathetic to the notion that residents should be able to express their opinions on policy matters.

The Salt Lake City Council is considering an ordinance that would allow citizen-initiative resolutions, she said.

"There isn't an ordinance that allows for that, but there's no reason that there couldn't be if that's what the council decided to do," Haws said.

Haws asked the court to issue a ruling by Aug. 30 to allow the city time to place the initiative on the November ballot. The five justices gave no indication of how they're leaning.

"Seems to me to be a close call," said Justice Thomas Lee.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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