Patrick Springer, Published September 17 2012
Medical pot backers look to North Dakota Supreme Court to get measure back on ballotFARGO – Backers of a measure to legalize the medical use of marijuana have gone to court to get the proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot after officials rejected petitions they determined were rife with fraudulent signatures.
The appeal was filed late Friday afternoon directly with the North Dakota Supreme Court, which has original jurisdiction on the issue because of a looming ballot-printing deadline.
The state prepared its response Monday afternoon asking the lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that officials acted correctly and that the lawsuit comes too late.
The lawsuit asks the high court to bar printing the ballots – which must be ready soon for military voters stationed overseas and for absentee voters – until the dispute is decided.
Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who is named in the lawsuit, rejected the measure because some petition signatures to place the issue on the ballot were forged.
Fifteen of those who circulated petitions – including 10 current and three former North Dakota State University football players – were charged earlier this month with fraud for collecting bogus signatures.
“They didn’t even go through the proper process of determining whether they’re legitimate or not,” said Steve Zaiser of Fargo, a state legislator and chairman of the committee sponsoring the medical marijuana initiated measure.
Instead of rejecting every petition signature on a page, state election officials should have rejected only fraudulent signatures, Zaiser said in an interview and in papers filed in court on his behalf.
The medical marijuana proponents’ legal challenge argues that Jaeger failed to follow constitutional and statutory legal requirements in rejecting petitions to place the issue before voters.
“The Secretary failed to engage in the signature-by-signature review that would be necessary to sustain any challenge to the signatures offered, instead eliminating an entire class of signatures based on allegations of fraud and forgery,” the lawsuit said.
Courts have used a “liberal viewpoint” in deciding whether to disqualify petition signatures, medical marijuana proponents argued.
The petitions are 919 signatures short, and medical marijuana proponents argue they should have been given a chance to submit valid signatures to allow the issue to get on the ballot.
“But the biggest losers, at present, are the citizens of North Dakota,” the lawsuit said, saying the biggest harm is to those who legitimately signed petitions.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said, however, that the petition circulators themselves could not attest to which signatures were valid. The North Dakota Constitution says only petition circulators can attest to the validity of signatures they collected.
“Not one of the circulators was willing to sign an affidavit saying any of the signatures were valid,” Stenehjem said.
“You have a petition here that is so thoroughly tainted with fraud that you wonder why they would want to proceed under a cloud,” he added. “I guess that’s their strategic decision to make.”
In its written response, the state said Jaeger did not go beyond his discretion in rejecting the petitions:
“The purpose of the circulator affidavit is to provide evidence of the genuineness of the attached signatures. When the circulators affidavit is admittedly false, the evidence of the genuineness of the attached signatures no longer exists.”
The integrity of the election process is at stake, the state argued in its brief seeking dismissal of the case.
“To safeguard the initiative process, public policy dictates that forged signatures and petitions with falsified affidavits not be counted when determining whether enough signatures exist for a measure to be placed on the ballot,” the state’s response argued.
With the Nov. 6 election less than two months away, election officials face tight deadlines to enable absentee ballots to be printed and mailed to voters in time.
In its response to the legal challenge, the state also argues that the medical marijuana proponents waited too long before filing their appeal.
Both federal and state law require ballots to be ready for distribution by the 46th day before the election – a deadline that falls on Friday.
Because time is drawing short, both the medical marijuana backers and the state are asking the North Dakota Supreme Court to decide the dispute quickly.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522
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