The Minnesota Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to the language of the proposed Voter ID ballot initiative on Tuesday, even as the prospect of other looming litigation threatened to complicate their deliberations. And after the court proceedings concluded, the Senate chief author of the Voter ID measure confirmed that a separate legal action will be launched against Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Attorney General Lori Swanson over Ritchie’s retitling of the Voter ID constitutional amendment for the November ballot.
The justices pondered their dilemma openly during the Tuesday proceedings. Midway through the arguments, Justice David Stras raised the issue of Ritchie’s move, which changed the title from “Recognition of Marriage Solely Between One Man and One Woman” to “Limiting the Status of Marriage to Opposite Sex Couples.”
The case before the Supreme Court is based on a claim that the ballot language is unacceptably vague and fails to convey the scope of the changes in election law contained in the Voter ID initiative. But Bill Pentelovitch, who argued the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, the League of Women Voters Minnesota, and other groups seeking to keep the amendment off November ballots, admitted to Stras that he did not know how the title change, and the pending legal challenge to Ritchie’s maneuver, might affect his clients’ case. At one point, Pentelovitch compared the situation to “The Twilight Zone.”
In a press conference just after the hearing, Sen. Scott Newman confirmed that the potential legal challenge was an inevitability, saying that he and Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer planned to file a lawsuit in an attempt to restore the original title.
“I would anticipate [the filing] pretty soon,” Newman said. “Stand by.”
During Tuesday’s arguments, Pentelovitch argued that the ballot question is “misleading.” Justices Alan Page and Paul Anderson appeared to agree with Pentelovitch, questioning Thomas Boyd, who argued on behalf of the defendants, about disparities between the language of the question and the actual amendment. Other justices, however, seemed less convinced.
Pentelovitch attempted to argue the court into a corner, claiming that the summary was misleading and therefore unconstitutional, but going on to argue that the court could neither send it back to the Legislature for another version, nor rule that the entire amendment should appear on the ballot.
Arguing for the state, Boyd said that any problems with the ballot question would need to rise to the level of “palpable evasion” for the justices to rule against it, pointing out that the full language of the amendment itself is available for review by the public.
Even though he agreed with Pentelovitch on the language issue, Justice Anderson expressed concern over the court interjecting itself in the amendment process.
“I’ve got validly passed language for a proposed amendment,” Anderson told Pentelovitch, “and you’re asking me to say, ‘No, that doesn’t go to the people.'”
In response to Stras’ line of questions on the title change, Pentelovitch said he was “struggling with” the issue, and pointed out that Ritchie was not present to defend himself or take a position. During the legislators’ press conference, Newman made the same observation, but with harsher language.
“I just think the people of the state of Minnesota deserve better,” Newman said.
When asked about their plans to sue, Newman said he did not plan to join with supporters of the anti-gay marriage amendment, who are pursuing a similar challenge to Ritchie’s authority to change the ballot title of that amendment.