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Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led House and Senate took a fight over tough new petition drive rules to court Wednesday in an attempt to force implementation despite the law's invalidation by Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel.  

A lawsuit filed in the Michigan Court of Claims is the latest front in a legal battle over a new law that would make petition drives more difficult by limiting groups to collecting no more than 15 percent of their required signatures from any single congressional district.

The GOP complaint targets Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and seeks a court order requiring her to enforce the 2018 law and implement provisions Nessel deemed unconstitutional. 

"While Secretary Benson requested the formal opinion under the guise of understanding how 2018 PA 608 'affects the rights' of 'potential petition sponsors, circulators and voters,' the actual motivation for obtaining a formal opinion appears to have been so that she can circumvent the requirements of validly enacted statutes she has a legal duty to enforce," Republican attorneys wrote. 

In her legal opinion, prompted by a request by Benson, Nessel said the new petition drive rules would inappropriately limit voter participation in the petition drive process.

The League of Women Voters and Michiganders for Fair and Transparent Elections, which is considering a campaign finance reform petition drive, filed a separate lawsuit two weeks ago against the GOP law, arguing it is unconstitutional and "will impose formidable obstacles to the exercise of direct democracy."

Then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed the petition drive rules into law in late December four days before leaving office, saying it would "promote geographic diversity" similar to the signature-gathering requirements imposed on gubernatorial candidates filing for election.

The legislation came on the heels of an election that saw liberal groups advance  controversial initiatives, including minimum wage and paid sick leave laws the Legislature adopted and then scaled back before they took effect. 

State Rep. Jim Lower, a Greenville Republican who sponsored the 2018 law, praised House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey for authorizing the complaint for "writ of mandamus" filed Wednesday in defense of the statute. 

“Nothing about this law is unconstitutional,” Lower said in a statement. “The attorney general and secretary of state are grasping at straws in an attempt to circumvent the requirements of a duly enacted law. They don’t get to pick and choose which laws to enforce based on personal preference."

The Michigan Constitution gives voters the ability to initiate bills or ballot proposals via petition drive. Nessel said the Legislature “cannot impose an additional obligation ... that curtails or unduly burdens the people’s right.”

The attorney general’s opinion, which only focused on some elements of the law, is binding on state agencies but not courts.

“We remain exceedingly confident in our opinion and expect our legal arguments and assessment of the constitutionality of PA 608 will be upheld by any court which reviews the matter,” Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said Wednesday. 

Benson's office had not seen the lawsuit as of Wednesday afternoon but planned to review any filings, said spokesman Shawn Starkey. 

The Secretary of State  is preparing guidance for petition drive groups to indicate which rules they should follow in the wake of Nessel's opinion. That process is not yet complete, and department is making revisions in response to requests at a recent Board of State Canvassers meeting, Starkey said. 

Nessel also invalidated portions of the law that would have required paid circulators to file an affidavit with the secretary of state and check a box on the petitions to indicate their paid status, which supporters said was an attempt to boost transparency. 

“In the past, out-of-state special interests have come into Michigan and unfairly influenced our elections process,” Lower said. “Our solution ensures that all Michigan voters — from Marquette to Grand Rapids to Detroit, and everywhere in between — are given a voice in the petition initiative process.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

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