The ball’s in the court’s court

There can be little doubt that Nevada’s secretary of state and attorney general recently raised questions about the fairness of laws regulating citizens’ initiatives and referenda.

The attorney general’s office last month issued an opinion that disqualified three initiative petitions—Nevada Clean Air Act, Regulation of Marijuana and Responsibly Protect Nevadans from Second Hand Smoke Act—due to a lack of sufficient valid signatures.

The problem is that signature gatherers were told by official sources they had to collect a certain number of signatures in order to qualify, but, after the signatures were submitted, the number was increased, thus voiding the efforts of collectors and disenfranchising voters who signed the petitions.

The problem is deceptively simple. The Nevada Constitution requires that the signature gatherers collect signatures equaling 10 percent of the voters who voted in the entire state at the last preceding general election. The petitions were filed and registered well before the 2004 election. In this instance, logic would appear to suggest the groups would have to gather at least 51,337 signatures—10 percent of the number of voters who went to the polls in the 2002 election. The 2004 election totals hadn’t yet been certified, but on Nov. 2, the date of the “last preceding general election” changed, becoming Nov. 2, 2004, and requiring 83,156 signatures.

There is no reason for believing that there was some kind of collusion between the attorney general’s office and the office of the secretary of state to disqualify those petitions. There does seem, though, to have been a certain incompetence on the part of the elections division not to have foreseen the predicament, and for government employees to offer incorrect and uninformed advice on the totals required for success can only be described as negligent.

Secretary of State Dean Heller is in an unfortunate position, as is Attorney General Brian Sandoval. While the interpretation of the Nevada Constitution fell to the AG, Heller gets to be the person who disqualified the petitions.

“As I have stated before, I do not believe that Nevada’s Constitution is a fast-food menu that I, as a duly elected and sworn constitutional officer, should pick and choose which areas to abide by and which areas to interpret,” Heller was quoted in a press release that described how the interpretation was submitted back to the AG’s office for reconsideration. “Further, the Attorney General’s office is by statute the legal counsel to this office, and to not follow their legal guidance would open this office and the State to litigation.”

Well, it’s pretty obvious that either decision was going to land Heller and Sandoval in court. In fact, it did. It can only be hoped that the courts will look beyond the state’s interpretation to the spirit of the law—a fair method for citizens to redress grievances with their government.

Sometimes, legal justice requires a look beyond black-and-white words on paper, and when citizens operate under the directions of authoritative sources, sources who’ve sworn to uphold the Nevada Constitution, they have no choice but to assume those words are law, and the advice they received is accurate.