Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Legislatures, Initiatives, and the Courts

Commentators have long likened the legislative process to sausage-making, something that those with weak stomachs should not observe too closely. Nonetheless, courts have respected legislative decision-making by providing outsized deference to that body as the policymaker most likely to enact laws in accordance with popular sovereignty. When voters object to the decisions rendered, they can throw the rascals out, and different policy choices can then prevail.

Yet, legislators often seem to disapprove of voters who bypass them to enact laws or constitutional provisions by initiative – especially when it supports ends that the legislators oppose. At the moment, we see this playing out in Ohio. In light of the Dobbs decision,[1] which overturned Roe v. Wade[2] and declared that abortion was an issue that could be decided state-by-state, pro-choice voters have sought to enshrine a right to abortion in state constitutions through the initiative process in several states. To date, all have passed.

In Ohio, the legislature attempted to put up an obstacle in advance of the vote. It sought approval of its own initiative on a quicker schedule that would have increased the requirement for approval from a simple majority to 60 percent, as well as from 44 to 88 the number of counties represented in signatures to qualify for the ballot. That initiative failed. Then the secretary of state proposed language, approved by the state ballot board, designed to make the proposed amendment less desirable.

Nonetheless, the amendment was approved by voters earlier this month. Immediately after the election, Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens claimed that “multiple paths” exist to prohibit abortion despite the constitutional amendment.”

Most troubling for those who believe in the rule of law and judicial independence is the proposal some Ohio lawmakers have advanced to strip the courts of the authority to review cases that would implement the newly passed constitutional amendment. They released a statement justifying this extreme measure by asserting, without demonstrating any basis for the claim, that “foreign election interference” tainted the vote. The election denialism that infected the last presidential election apparently provides fodder for undermining the courts.

Those courts are currently reviewing a constitutional challenge to a 2019-enacted six-week abortion ban that contains no exceptions for rape or incest. The constitutional amendment would appear to make invalidation of the ban a simple and straightforward inevitability. A jurisdiction-stripping bill, if valid, would prevent that possibility.

At stake is not only the status of abortion, but the authority of our courts – and the place of popular sovereignty in our representative democracy. Certainly, there are arguments against amending laws and constitutions through the initiative process. It can be overused, trivialize the law with popular but ill-considered or poorly drafted mandates, and has spawned an industry that raises and profits from the process. The same, however, can be said of the legislative process itself. While in place, the initiative, a product of progressives a century ago, still provides the rules that we are obliged to follow.

Ohio and the abortion issue is not the only time that legislatures have rebelled against voter initiatives. In 2018, Floridians approved an initiative to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies and who had completed their sentences, excluding murderers and sex offenders. Months later, the legislature enacted a law that defined completion of a sentence as having repaid in full all fines and fees, even though that often could not be determined. The Florida Supreme Court, in response to a request of the governor while a constitutional challenge was working its way through the courts, read the new law as consistent with the amendment passed by initiative. Whatever one thinks of that conclusion, it conformed to a process that allowed the courts to determine the law.

My favorite example of a voter initiative and a legislature at loggerheads occurred in Massachusetts. In 1988, voters approved the Massachusetts Clean Elections Law, which created a system of public campaign funding for candidates who limited the private financing they accepted. The Massachusetts initiative provision required the legislature to fund it, but no appropriation was ever made. Plainly, legislators were not anxious to fund their challengers. Supporters of the initiative, including a candidate for governor, brought a lawsuit in 2001 to obtain the missing funding or void any election without public funding.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the initiative, unless repealed, required the legislature to a money judgment in the amount that would provide the public campaign funding promised by the law, while the court would retain jurisdiction with a single justice assigned to assure that other eligible candidates also receive the money.[3] When the legislature dragged its feet in providing the funding, that justice threatened to execute on the Commonwealth’s property to assure that the funding would be forthcoming. The threat proved sufficient, although the legislature exercised its right to repeal the Clean Elections Law a year later.

Ohio’s legislature cannot repeal a constitutional amendment on its own. It could argue that the amendment should not be interpreted to invalidate its 2019 statute. What it should not do, if the rule of law is to prevail, is block the courts from construing the state constitution and measuring legislative acts against its restrictions.

 

[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 142 S. Ct. 2228 (2022).

[2] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[3] Bates v. Dir. of Off. of Campaign & Pol. Fin., 763 N.E.2d 6 (2002).

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