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Ashcroft can delay review for 2024 initiative petitions until after election, judge rules

There is no way under Missouri law to save time on initiative petitions by submitting them early, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled Wednesday.

In the decision, Beetem wrote he found “unpersuasive” the arguments of Jeff Basinger, a Columbia attorney, that the law requires Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft to conduct a required review of proposed initiatives as soon as they are presented to his office.

While state law describes the duties Ashcroft must perform when an initiative is submitted, “the people – through their Constitution – have supplied the timeline for when those obligations are triggered,” Beetem wrote.

In an email to The Independent, Basinger said he was perplexed by the ruling.

“I cannot discern from the judgment why my arguments were found to be unpersuasive,” he wrote.

Basinger intends to appeal the decision.

“I could not see a sufficient response to my arguments here for me to remain unconvinced,” Basinger wrote.

Basinger submitted his petition on Aug. 1. It proposed a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights, with the goal of getting it on the November 2024 ballot.

The proposal was Basinger’s response to the June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that overturned the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that the federal constitution gave women the right to seek an abortion. Missouri’s law banning all abortions except in the case of medical emergency took effect minutes after the decision was delivered.

The proposal Basinger submitted would add exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest and to protect the health of the woman. It would have also mandated that the state allow women seeking an abortion to obtain medications approved by the FDA.

Basinger wanted Ashcroft to start the reviews process – which can take up to 51 days – so he could begin gathering signatures just after this year’s election on Nov. 8.

Instead, Ashcroft notified Basinger that the review would begin on Nov. 9. Basinger sued to test that decision.

In a news release, Ashcroft said he was pleased Beetem upheld his decision to not review Basinger’s petition.

“We feel the court ruled appropriately as my office followed Missouri law as it relates to this issue,” Ashcroft said. “This petition, if refiled, will be processed in the same manner and timeframe as all others submitted after the general election.”

The review process requires Ashcroft to put the initiative online for public comment and send copies to the attorney general and auditor’s offices for legal and fiscal analysis. If it meets legal requirements, Ashcroft writes a ballot title and certifies the petition for circulation.

Getting an initiative from idea to the ballot is a monumental task and generally takes millions of dollars to hire paid signature gatherers. Of the 89 initiatives submitted for review in advance of this year’s election, only two got enough signatures to submit for certification to the ballot and only one – Amendment 3, to legalize recreational marijuana sales and use – cleared all the hurdles.

Starting earlier could mean a better chance to make the ballot.

In 1991, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a law limiting when a sample petition could be submitted for review after one general election and before the next was unconstitutonal. Before that decision, a sample petition could not be submitted more than a year before the final date for submitting a petition with the required signatures.

Subsequent revisions of the law removed the time limitation on submissions. Basinger wanted Beetem to rule that change meant a petition could be submitted at any time as long as signatures were not collected until the period between general elections.

But Beetem returned to the 1991 decision to explain why he did not rule for Basinger. 

Because a successful petition must go before voters “at the next general election,” it is premature to send in a sample petition in the period between the final submission date for a completed petition and the election, Beetem wrote.

Quoting the 1991 ruling, Beetem wrote that the constitutional provision “is not semantically specific, but nonetheless plain in meaning.”

This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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