By JOSH FUNK / The Associated Press | Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 3:15 pm
Nebraska's law requiring petition circulators to be residents of the state has been found unconstitutional, but several other petition-drive restrictions were upheld.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Bataillon ruled Tuesday in two lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and several petition organizers. The lawsuits argued that changes the state Legislature made in 2007 and 2008 illegally restricted political speech by putting an unfair burden on groups trying to force a vote on an issue and on independent candidates.
Bataillon ruled that the state's ban on out-of-state petition workers unfairly infringed on organizers' constitutional rights and made it harder to conduct a petition drive.
"The out-of-state ban imposes a heavy burden on the plantiff-intervenors efforts to promote their political views in Nebraska," Bataillon said.
The judge also threw out a requirement that local petition sponsors be residents of those cities.
But he upheld requirements that petition circulators be at least 18, and that petitions identify paid circulators. A ban on paying circulators by the signature also was upheld.
Shannon Kingery, the state attorney general's spokeswoman, said the rulings still are being reviewed and declined comment on them.
ACLU attorney Elora Mukherjee praised Bataillon's decision to eliminate the residency requirement, because, she said, it made it nearly impossible for Nebraskans to get an issue on the ballot.
"We're thrilled that the court struck down the ban on out-of-state circulators," said Mukherjee, who is based in New York.
ACLU Nebraska sued the state on behalf of the nonprofit Citizens in Charge Foundation Inc., along with Michael Groene of North Platte, a frequent petition signature gatherer for ballot initiatives, and Donald Sluti of Kearney, who believes the law makes it impossible for him to gather enough signatures to get on the Nebraska ballot as an independent candidate. The Libertarian Party of Nebraska later joined the lawsuit.
Omaha businessman Kent Bernbeck filed a separate lawsuit challenging the petition restrictions that also was decided Tuesday. Bernbeck and others tried to use the initiative process to get the city of Stanton to install a donated water slide for the city swimming pool. They say their petition was denied in November because some circulators were disqualified because they weren't residents.
Bernbeck said he hopes Stanton residents will finally be able to vote on the slide.