Supreme Court Blocks Lower Court Order Easing Oregon Signature-Gathering Requirements

August 11, 2020 Updated: August 12, 2020

The Supreme Court temporarily blocked a lower court ruling Aug. 11 that would have made it easier for a group that advocates for redistricting reform in Oregon to collect signatures during the current pandemic.

It’s the latest emergency order by the high court that declined to temporarily ease election law requirements in the age of the CCP virus, a novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals previously denied the state’s motion to stay the lower court order.

The high court blocked a judge’s order July 30 that relaxed election rules to give an Idaho activist group additional time to gather signatures for a ballot initiative.

Reclaim Idaho, a political action committee that proposes a boost in funding in kindergarten through 12th-grade education by increasing Idaho’s corporate tax rate and taxes on individuals earning $250,000 or more annually, put its efforts on hold after the group decided it didn’t want to gather signatures during the pandemic.

Before that, the Supreme Court refused to bend Ohio election rules to accommodate marijuana decriminalization advocates who failed to gather enough in-person petition signatures to get their referendum question on the Nov. 3 ballot in several cities. The emergency application to stop the Buckeye State from enforcing its ballot-access rules was denied by the high court on June 25.

The ruling in the new case, cited as Clarno v. People Not Politicians Oregon, was issued on Aug. 11. Beverly A. Clarno is Oregon’s secretary of state and the sole Republican holding statewide office in the Beaver State.

People Not Politicians supports Initiative Petition 57 (IP 57), which the group says would “reform that process and create a fairer, more transparent system,” by creating “an independent citizen redistricting commission comprised of Oregonians.”

The effort is endorsed by a litany of left-leaning groups, including the Progressive Party of Oregon and the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group. The League of Women Voters of Oregon, Common Cause, and NAACP of Eugene/Springfield were listed as respondents in the emergency application to the Supreme Court.

The proposal would have amended the state constitution and allowed for a citizen-based redistricting commission to draw congressional and state legislative lines every 10 years. The group said it had to rely on no-contact methods of signature gathering in order to comply with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home orders and blamed the restrictions for falling short of the required number of signatures.

In the application to the Supreme Court, Oregon Attorney General Ellen F. Rosenblum, a Democrat, wrote that People Not Politicians had, by its own count, “obtained only about 64,000 unverified signatures by the July 2nd deadline,” falling short of the 149,360 valid signatures reportedly needed to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Oregon-based U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, an Obama appointee, ruled July 10 that People Not Politicians had exercised “reasonable diligence” in trying to qualify for the ballot during the pandemic.

McShane presented two choices to Clarno, who administers elections. Clarno could accept the signatures submitted July 2 and allow the referendum to proceed or extend the time for gathering signatures to Aug. 17.

Clarno agreed to the extension but Rosenblum, whose office represents the secretary of state and all other state agencies in court, took the matter out of Clarno’s hands and decided to appeal the decision.

The judge’s ruling “encroaches on the state’s sovereign authority to determine for itself the process by which its own constitution can be amended,” Rosenblum wrote in the application to the Supreme Court. “Changing the rules for initiatives by judicial fiat, this late in the election cycle only for one privileged measure, is legally unsupportable and fundamentally unfair.”

IP 57 campaign chairman Norman Turrill of People Not Politicians told The Epoch Times that the campaign, which he said “is committed to putting Oregonians, not public officials with a clear conflict of interest, at the center of the next redistricting process,” would continue.

“People Not Politicians prevailed in federal district court and we will be defending Oregonian voters’ first amendment rights during our scheduled oral argument in the 9th Circuit on August 13,” Turrill said.

“Our coalition will continue doing everything in our power to put this vital democracy reform on the ballot in November and ensure there is a path for redistricting reform in Oregon in 2021.”

The emergency application was first referred to Justice Elena Kagan, who is the sitting circuit justice on the high court responsible for hearing emergency applications originating within the geographical boundaries of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court, in line with custom, didn’t provide a rationale for the order, and it was unclear how the justices voted on the emergency application. There is no indication in the order about how Kagan voted. For the stay to be approved, five of the nine justices would have had to vote for it.

Two liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented from the grant of stay. They didn’t explain why.