Initiative & Referendum Institute
at the University of Southern California
Major I&R Related Court Cases
The following is an alphabetical listing of court cases that the Institute currently has electronic versions. The Institute takes no position on the contents of these court decisions and is providing them for educational purposes only. If you know of a court case that should be listed please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of these documents are in Adobe Acrobat PDF format - download the free Acrobat Reader.
This case struck down initiative I-695, which had been adopted by the voters, as violating the state’s single subject requirement for initiatives. The ruling was appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.
The Oregon Supreme Court invalidated a criminal justice initiative on the grounds that it involved multiple changes to the constitution that should have been considered separately by voters.
In this Massachusetts case, the Supreme Judicial Court for the County of Suffolk ruled that the state legislature must provide funding to implement the Clean Elections Law, which was passed by popular initiative. It is the first case in which a state high court has ordered a legislature to fund a ballot measure.
On October 9, 1997 the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a Nebraska law that required petitioners to be registered voters in Nebraska for at least 30 days before circulating an initiative petition. The court ruled the voter registration requirement violated the First Amendment.
Bernzen v. Boulder, 186 Colo. 81, 525 P.2d 416 (1974)
In this case, the court ruled that recall, as well as initiative and referendum, were fundamental rights of a republican form of government that the people have reserved unto themselves.
The court upheld as constitutional a California statute that prevents the use of names gathered on initiative petitions. The statute prohibits the proponent and circulator from communicating by mail with signers by obtaining their names and addresses from the petition, whether or not the communication relates to the subject of the initiative petition.
On March 3, 1998, The Becket Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of Massachusetts’s citizens challenging provisions of the Massachusetts constitution that forbid citizens from using the initiative process for issues pertaining to private school funding. In September 1998, a federal judge signed an order permitting a petition to be circulated for signatures while the court challenge was pending. In 1999, more than 78,000 signatures were certified, easily surpassing the minimum requirement. But in order for the petition to come before the legislature, and henceforth the voters, the Attorney General must certify that it is proper for the legislators to take it up. In a letter of September 1, 1999, he declared that one of the very constitutional provisions being challenged prohibits him from doing so. The Federal Court upheld the state’s constitutional prohibition on prohibiting initiatives that pertain to religion and by extension private school funding.
U. S. Supreme Court
The question before the court in Buckley was whether the State of Colorado may constitutionally regulate the process of circulating initiative petitions by requiring that: (1) petition circulators who verify the signatures of petition signers must be registered electors; (2) petition circulators must wear identification badges; and (3) proponents of an initiative must file reports disclosing the amounts paid to circulators and the identity of petition circulators. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on January 12, 1999 striking down Colorado’s regulation and restrictions on their initiative process as “undue hindrances to political conversations and the exchange of ideas,” according to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who wrote for the court. The Initiative and Referendum Institute submitted an Amicus Brief in support of the position put forth by the American Constitutional Law Foundation.
U.S. Supreme Court
Landmark First Amendment protection case pertaining to campaign spending. The ruling helped establish the fact that spending on ballot measure campaigns cannot be limited.
This case was the first successful pre-ballot challenge to a California initiative under the single subject rule. The court prohibited the Secretary of State from qualifying or placing on the ballot a lengthy measure embracing several subjects.
Campbell, Hamilton, Initiative & Referendum Institute, et al v. Buckley, 98-1329 (1998) United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, No. 98-1329 Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 98-K-1022)
This case was filed in 1998 and challenged Colorado’s constitutional, statutory, and administrative procedures for review of initiative measures before they are placed on the ballot. The lower court ruled against the complaint.
In this Oregon case, the courts ruled that signature gatherers cannot be independent contractors and must be paid as employees.
Chandler v. City of Arvada, CO, Federal District Court for the State of Colorado, 00-N-0342 (2001)
This case struck down as unconstitutional a local ordinance requiring petition circulators to be residents of the city.
The California Appellate Court found Proposition 105, which required disclosure in a wide variety of areas (campaigns, hospitals, South African contracts, etc.), to violate the single subject rule of the state constitution.
U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court held that a California city's ordinance to impose a limit on contributions to committees formed to support or oppose ballot measures violated the First Amendment. The Court based its decision on the right of individuals to bear and obtain information. In doing so, it equated free political spending with free speech.
The California Supreme Court declared that the Political Reform Act couldn’t limit expenditures by ballot measure committees.
U.S. Supreme Court
The United States Supreme Court unanimously held (opinion by
O’Connor; concurrence by Scalia) that a city government’s act of subjecting a
low-income housing ordinance to a referendum process does not constitute proof
of racially discriminatory intent or arbitrary government conduct.
The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that “a constitutional initiative or referral is invalid (and none of its provisions take effect, regardless of the vote), unless the court determines that voters would necessarily have approved every single element of the measure, if those elements were stated separately.”
Finn v. McCuen, 303 Ark. 418, 798 S.W. 2d 34 (1990)
Since the title of a lottery measure was misleading, the court ruled that the measure should not be allowed on the ballot.
U.S. Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has supported the notion that one-sided spending is not a crucial factor in ballot issue elections. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a Massachusetts statute prohibiting business corporations from making contributions or expenditures "... for the purpose of ... influencing or affecting the vote on any question submitted to the voters, other than one materially affecting any of the property, business or assets of the corporation."
This decision is the first in the country to hold that state law cannot prohibit non-residents from circulating nominating petitions for political candidates in a state. In the opinion of the Wisconsin Elections Board, moreover, this federal court decision also reaches initiative referenda.
The Supreme Court of the state struck down the legislature's attempt to increase the state's geographic distribution requirement for signatures on initiative petitions.
The California Supreme Court found unconstitutional the Political Reform Act's cap on expenditures for qualifying ballot measures since it violated First Amendment rights.
Hartig v. City of Seattle, 53 Wash. 432, 102 P. 408 (1909)
In 1909, the Washington Supreme Court considered whether I&R violated the Guarantee Clause of the Federal Constitution. The Washington court did not think the question of representative government was relevant at all to the question of whether a form of government was republican. They stated: “[I]t can scarcely be contended that this plan is inconsistent with a republican form of government, the central idea of which is a government by the people. Whether the expression of the will of the people is made directly by their own acts or through representatives chosen by them is not material. The important consideration is a full expression.”
Hinterberger v. State of Alaska, 3AN-03-4092 (2003)
The lawsuit challenged the State of Alaska's determination that a hemp legalization initiative was invalid because the people collecting signatures signed the back of the initiative pamphlets, but not a separate form required at the time pamphlets are turned in. In the ruling Judge Suddock said that type of violation is not cause for rejection, and added that "the rules were less than clear, and were not timely enforced by the Division of Elections."
The California Appellate Court ruled that an indoor shopping mall cannot ban petition gatherers but can impose reasonable rules on circulators.
The U.S District Court struck down Idaho state laws that required signatures from six percent of the qualified voters in each of at least half of the state's counties, prohibited the payment of circulators on a per-signature basis, and prohibited circulators from willfully making a false statement to obtain signatures, but upheld the law that requires circulators to be residents of the state. The state of Idaho appealed parts of the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals where oral arguments were held on March 7, 2003 in Seattle, Washington. On September 8, 2003 the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court ruling.
Here is a quote from the Ninth Circuit decision:
"Idaho permits direct legislation through ballot initiatives. In order to appear on the ballot, an initiative must meet several conditions; one is that signatures in support of the initiative must be collected from six percent of the qualified voters in each of at least half of the state's counties. Because Idaho's counties vary widely in population, this geographic distribution requirement favors residents of sparsely populated areas over residents of more densely populated areas in their respective efforts to participate in the process of qualifying initiatives for the ballot. The district court held that this unequal treatment violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We affirm."
Initiative & Referendum Institute v. Costco (California State District Court BC 18052) (1998)
This case was filed in 1998 and sought to require Costco stores to adhere to existing California law and establish standard and reasonable time, place and manner restrictions for petitioners. The case was decided in favor of Costco.
Initiative & Referendum Institute v. Ralph’s (California State District Court BC 187162) (1998)
This case was filed in 1998 and sought to require Ralph’s stores to adhere to existing California law and establish standard and reasonable time, place and manner restrictions for petitioners. The case was decided in favor of Ralph’s.
Initiative & Referendum Institute et al v. Alvin Jaeger, 99-3434 (2001) Appeal from the Federal District Court for the State of North Dakota, Initiative & Referendum Institute et al v. State of North Dakota, A1-98-70 (1998)
This case sought to overturn North Dakota’s prohibition on paying circulators on a per-signature basis and the requirement that circulators be eligible North Dakota voters. The District Court upheld the state laws. The case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
The Federal judge upheld the state's residency and voter registration requirements for petition circulators but ruled that the state’s law on banning a petitioner’s pay on a per signature bases was unconstitutional.
This case asked the court to review, declare unconstitutional and enjoin enforcement of Proposition 5, the 1998 legislatively sponsored amendment to the Utah Constitution. The amendment requires any citizen ballot initiative involving wildlife to pass with a two-thirds supermajority vote of the Utah electorate. The Court ruled the law was constitutional. An appeal is pending before the Tenth Circuit. Oral arguments were made before the Tenth Circuit on September 15, 2003 (click here to read an article on the oral arguments).
The suit, which was filed in 2000, sought to overturn the USPS regulation prohibiting citizens from collecting petition signatures on initiative petitions on postal property. The 1998 postal regulation severely limits the ability of citizens around the country to place issues before their fellow voters. The District Court judge issued his ruling on December 31, 2003 upholding the ban. The Institute will be appealing this decision.
The court ruled that an initiative measure can be prevented from being circulated if it violates the single subject rule.
In re Pfahler, 150 Cal. 71, 88 P. 270 (1906)
In this case, the California Supreme Court upheld a local initiative law against a Guarantee Clause challenge while implying that similar measures on the state level would be constitutional as well. The court stated: "In saying this, we do not wish to be understood as intimating that the people of a state may not reserve the supervisory control as to general state legislation afforded by the initiative and referendum, without violating this provision of the federal constitution."
Jordon v. City of Seattle (Washington Supreme Court No. 68805-2, 143 Wn.2d 1004) (2001)
In this case, citizens submitted a petition with the requisite number of signatures to the Seattle City Council on a proposed ordinance regarding the funding of neighborhood branch library facilities. The Seattle City Council amended the initiative in such a way as to nullify it and adopted the amended version. The City refused to place the initiative on the ballot, and the case was appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court. However, the court found that the issue was moot because "we (the court) are unable to provide effective relief."
In this case, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature did not have the authority to place statutes on the ballot for a general vote of the people.
Kadderly v. City of Portland, 44 Or. 118, 74 P. 710 (1903)
In this case, the Oregon Supreme Court sustained initiative and referendum against a Guarantee Clause attack. The courts states, “The initiative and referendum amendment does not abolish or destroy the republican form of government, or substitute another in its place. The representative character of the government still remains. The people have simply reserved to themselves a larger share of legislative power, but they have not overthrown the republican form of the government, or substituted another in its place.”
Kean, Initiative & Referendum Institute, et al v. Clark, 56 F. Supp. 2d 719 (S. District of Miss. 1999)
In this Mississippi case, the Federal District Court concluded that although a voter registration requirement for petition circulators would be unconstitutional, a residency requirement was permissible. They also ruled that changes to the state’s initiative laws couldn’t be applied retroactively.
The Oregon State Supreme Court struck down term limits on state elected officials as being unconstitutional. The Court ruled that the constitutional amendment, passed in 1992, violated the state's requirement that initiative amendments could not affect more than one section of the state constitution.
LIMIT v. Maleng, 874 F. Supp. 1138 (W.D. Wash., 1994)
In this Washington State case, the Federal District Court found that the state's prohibition against paying circulators on a per-signature basis was an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of political speech.
In this case, the Nebraska Supreme Court invalidated a slot machine initiative for violating the state's new law banning initiatives that contain more than one subject.
This case involved a pre-election challenge to Initiative 81 that would direct the King County Council to place before the voters a proposal to reduce the size of the council from 13 to 9 members. The King County Corrections Guild challenged the initiative as being outside the scope of issues allowed by the state's initiative process. The King County Superior Court agreed and ruled the initiative fell outside the scope of the initiative power under article XI, section 4 of the Washington State Constitution and King County Charter (KCC) article 8, section 800. However, on appeal, the State Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling stating that the subject matter of the initiative was allowed by the state constitution.
In this precedent setting case, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia overturned the Barr Amendment (so named because it was sponsored by Congressman Bob Barr), which prohibited the District of Columbia from expending any monies to decrease the penalties for use or distribution of a Schedule I controlled substance. The amendment would have prohibited validation of the election results of a medical marijuana initiative. The court found the Barr Amendment unconstitutional as applied to ballot initiatives and stated that Congress had overstepped its bounds and had improperly infringed upon the First Amendment Rights of the initiative proponents.
The plaintiffs in this Oregon case alleged that state election officials had violated their constitutional rights by declaring certain voters to be “inactive,” thereby making them ineligible to sign initiative petitions. They requested a temporary injunction against this declaration, but it was denied.
U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional an Ohio statute which prohibits the distribution of campaign literature that does not contain the name and address of the person or campaign official issuing the literature.
U.S. Supreme Court
The states of Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska each passed laws prohibiting the payment of petition circulators. The United States Supreme Court overturned these laws in this 1988 decision. Such a law, the Court ruled unanimously, restricts freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment and that it restricts access to the most effective fundamental and perhaps economical avenue of political discourse, direct one-on-one communication.
The federal appellate court ruled that Michigan's provisions limiting corporate contributions to ballot measure campaigns violated the right of association and free speech guarantees of the First Amendment. Another portion of the Michigan statute, prohibiting corporations from making independent expenditures on behalf of political candidates from general treasury funds, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce, U.S., ll0 S. Ct. 1391 (1990)
In this case the Michigan State Supreme Court ruled that a concealed weapons law could not be referred because it included a clause for financial appropriations, which are not subject to referral. The dissent argued that the legislature had included the appropriations clause only to prevent the law from being referred.
Missourians to Protect Initiative Process v. Blunt, 799 S.W. 824 (1990)
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled an initiative off the ballot because it violated the single subject rule.
The court of appeals affirmed judgments of the district court. The court held that the First Amendment does not permit restricting corporate expenditures as a means of expression on public issues presented through a state's ballot initiative process.
U.S. Supreme Court
This U.S. Supreme Court case addressed whether Oregon’s initiative and referendum system violated the Guarantee Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court sidestepped the issue by holding that whether a state has a republican form of government is a political question and therefore non-justiciable, The court concluded that any such determination should be made by Congress, which seemed to settle the issue at the federal level.
In this case the state Supreme Court upheld voter-approved Initiative 776, which
struck down local car-tab taxes that would help pay for Sound Transit's rail and
bus programs as well as road projects in King and Pierce counties.
This case invalidated a legislative attempt to regulate the fashion in which initiatives could qualify for the ballot.
U.S. Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state constitutional provisions that permit political activity at a privately owned shopping center do not violate federal constitutional private property rights of the owner.
The Arkansas Supreme Court prohibited the Secretary of State from placing an initiative on the ballot because the language of the proposal was misleading. The Court said that the wording must be specific and the effects clear before a proposal can be submitted to the voters.
In this case the San Francisco superior court issued a writ of mandate prohibiting respondent San Francisco Director of Elections from qualifying an initiative measure for the ballot. The writ was issued on the grounds that the circulating initiative petition contained false statements intended to mislead voters and induce them to sign the petition.
This 1999 decision struck an initiative off the California primary ballot because it violated the state’s single subject provision for initiatives.
The California Supreme Court ruled that the use of public funds for election campaigning to promote or oppose a ballot measure is illegal.
State ex rel. Nelson v. Jordan, 104 Ariz. 193 (1969)
The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that when two initiatives conflict, it is the duty of the court to harmonize both.
The Nebraska Supreme Court dealt with the constitutionality of a Nebraskan statute that required that the information a voter puts on an initiative petition (signature, address, etc.) be an exact match of what is in the voter registration records in order for the signature to be counted as a valid signature. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that this law was facially unconstitutional.
In this case the Oregon State Supreme Court reversed one of its earlier decisions and ruled that the collection of signatures is banned on all private property.
The California Supreme Court finds that when two initiatives covering the same topic appears on the same ballot, the one initiative receiving the most votes supersedes the other measure in all respects, even though some of the provisions of the one initiative with fewer voters do not conflict with the provisions of the other measure receiving the higher number of votes.
In November 1996, Paul Telford filed a lawsuit against the Thurston Board of County Commissioners, the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC), and the Washington State Association of County Officials (WACO) to prevent their use of public funds in political campaigns. The trial court filed a memorandum opinion and an order granting partial summary judgment in favor of Telford, ruling that WSAC and WACO are "quasi-public agencies" subject to RCW 42.17 and therefore cannot use their funds to oppose ballot measures.
Thomas J. Walsh et al v. Secretary to the Commonwealth, SCJ-07986 (1999) Dates: May 7, 1999 - July 16, 1999. Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on January 6, 1999
This litigation pertained to the validity of a petition and petition signatures if the petition had been altered in any way. The court ruled that signatures on petitions could be invalidated just because a coffee stain appeared on the petition.
The State Supreme Court ruled that grocery stores do not have to allow initiative petitioning on their property.
WIN v. Warheit, 98-35412 (2000) U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 98-35412; D.C. No. CV-97-05427-RJB Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington Argued and Submitted February 16, 2000--Seattle, Washington Filed May 25, 2000
The court struck down as unconstitutional the Washington State requirement that requires disclosure of the names, addresses and salaries of people hired to gather signatures for ballot initiatives.
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