High Court Blocks Electronic-Signature Gathering for Idaho Education Initiative

By Mark Walsh — July 30, 2020 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked a lower-court injunction letting an Idaho group backing a ballot initiative to boost education spending in that state collect electronic signatures and get extra time because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The high court granted the request of Idaho Gov. Bradley Little, a Republican, and stayed lower-court orders pending the outcome of the merits of the case before a federal appeals court and any appeal to the Supreme Court.

The stay puts a hold, for now, on electronic-signature gathering for the “Invest in Idaho” ballot measure, which would increase taxes on corporations and high-income individuals to raise an expected $170 million for a new Quality Education Fund. The fund would distribute money to school districts based on enrollment.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Reclaim Idaho suspended its in-person efforts to collect the necessary 55,000 in-person signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. The group filed its lawsuit in June, alleging state officials violated its First Amendment rights when they refused to authorize the gathering of electronic signatures.

A federal district judge issued an injunction that gave Reclaim Idaho 48 days, starting July 9, to collect electronic signatures. Little asked the Supreme Court to block the order, arguing that it infringes on the state’s interest in vetting ballot signatures and that an online system would be subject to fraud.

The high court’s short order in Little v. Reclaim Idaho (No. 20A18) necessitated five votes, though just four justices joined a concurrence that offered some reasons for granting the governor’s request.

“Since the onset of the pandemic,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the concurrence, several federal courts of appeals have ruled differently “as to whether and to what extent states must adapt the initiative process to account for new obstacles to collecting signatures.”

Roberts said that “right now, the preliminary injunction disables Idaho from vindicating its sovereign interest in the enforcement of initiative requirements that are likely consistent with the First Amendment.”

Also, the lower-court injunction puts a strain on state and local officials who must try to vet the electronic signatures, the chief justice said.

“The initiative process is just one aspect of a primary and general election system facing a wide variety of challenges in the face of the pandemic,” Roberts said.

The chief justice’s concurrence was joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, and Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a dissent joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said Idaho did not need immediate intervention from the Supreme Court because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, will hear arguments on the merits of the case on Aug. 11.

“If the district court’s preliminary injunction turns out to have been improper, Idaho will still have time to omit [Reclaim Idaho’s] initiative from the November ballot,” Sotomayor said, but the group backing the initiative “is in a far more precarious position.”

The high court stay “puts a halt” to Reclaim Idaho’s electronic signature-collection efforts, and even if the group prevails in further court proceedings, “it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for [the group] to collect enough qualifying signatures by any reasonable deadline for the November ballot,” Sotomayor said.

The court’s order did not disclose how Justices Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, or Elena Kagan voted, though at least one of them must have voted for the stay.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.