Idaho files emergency motion in ballot initiative lawsuit

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials late Wednesday filed an emergency motion asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put on hold a federal court’s order forcing the state to count online signatures for an initiative backers hope to get on the November ballot.

The request said the emergency stay is needed to preserve the integrity of Idaho’s ballot initiative laws.

The education funding initiative seeks to raise $170 million for K-12 education by raising Idaho’s corporate tax rate and increasing taxes on individuals making $250,000 a year or higher.

The order Idaho officials want put on hold requires the state to extend signature gathering for about seven weeks and allow electronic signatures — something never before allowed for ballot initiatives.

“Unless the district court’s Order is stayed on or before July 9, Idaho will be forced to abandon statutory requirements that ensure the integrity of its initiative process, attempt to comply with the Order’s unrealistic demands, and significantly change its election schedule,” the Idaho attorney general's office said in the filing.

Reclaim Idaho, a group that backs initiatives, in the lawsuit filed last month said that Republican Gov. Brad Little’s statewide stay-at-home order in late March due to the coronavirus pandemic didn’t include exceptions for ballot initiative signature gathering.

The group in the lawsuit against Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, also a Republican, said that violated the First Amendment-protected process of signature gathering, a form of political speech.

Little issued an emergency declaration on March 13 after the virus was confirmed in the state and then on March 25 a stay-at-home order as the virus appeared to be spreading out of control. The order was later extended to April 30 — the last day allowed for collecting ballot initiative signatures.

U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with Reclaim Idaho and last week ordered the state to choose between accepting online signatures or simply putting the education funding initiative on the November ballot.

When Idaho didn't respond, Winmill made a second ruling this week ordering the state to work with Reclaim Idaho or allow the group to start collecting online signatures by July 9.

Little called both rulings “judicial activism.” He appealed both orders to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday and has now asked the appeals court with an emergency motion to put the case on hold.

State officials argue that the pandemic and Reclaim Idaho's failure to act before the pandemic arrived are to blame for not collecting the signatures by the April 30 deadline, not the state.

The attorney general's office also said that if the appeals court denies the state's emergency request, it should grant a stay long enough for Idaho to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to put the case on hold until it can be decided on its merits.