Opinion: Petition-punishing law unconstitutional

Patrick L. Anderson
Last December, a lame-duck Michigan Legislature passed — and the governor signed — Public Act 608 to restrict the constitutionally reserved rights of the citizens to petition for new laws, Anderson says.

Bad laws look no better wearing a red hat than they do a blue one. Even worse are laws intended to curtail the constitutionally reserved rights of Michigan’s citizens.

Last December, a lame-duck Michigan Legislature passed — and the governor signed — just such a law. Public Act 608 purported to restrict the constitutionally reserved rights of the citizens to petition for new laws. The clear intent of the statute was to make it more difficult, expensive and time-consuming to initiate laws and amendments to our Constitution.

As I testified at the time — and reiterated in a letter to Attorney General Dana Nessel — Public Act 608 infringes powers reserved to the people. The Legislature knew that when they debated it. Indeed, anyone present at the hastily called hearings for the bill witnessed complete agreement between the advocates and opponents: The bill would make it harder for people to do what the Constitution guarantees we can do.

I reminded the legislature that George Romney, Richard Headlee, Glen Steil, Al Schmid, L. Brooks Patterson and I had all circulated petitions to initiate laws or amend our constitution. My own experience — with the repeal of the single business tax and the adoption of the term limit amendment — confirmed the importance of this right. I believe every one of these people would have opposed this bill if they could have joined me in Lansing that day. In fact, Patterson texted me before the day ended. He was just as opposed as one would expect.

Joining us in opposition was the ACLU and a mixture of constitutional conservatives and liberal advocates for free speech.

The people’s power to initiate laws has been enshrined in our constitutions for over a century. Article II, section 9 of the 1963 Constitution reaffirms the 1908 Constitution’s statement that the “first power reserved by the people is the initiative:”

“The people reserve to themselves (my emphasis) the power to propose laws and to enact and reject laws, called the initiative, and the power to approve or reject laws enacted by the legislature, called the referendum.”

PA 608 infringes these rights by casting aside valid signatures that exceed newly created county quotas. For that reason, it is unconstitutional on its face, should be repealed, and should not be enforced in the meantime.

In the course of the handful of hours during which this statute was debated, I pointed to a woman in the audience who supported a proposal that I had voted against. I said I disagreed with her proposed law, but I defended her right to advocate for it through the initiative process. I continue to defend that right today.

Democracy dies when our rights are suppressed, whether by silencing speakers whose views are considered unacceptable, by preventing citizens from petitioning for new laws that existing officeholders oppose, or by having the government decide what petitions we can sign. We can’t let that happen.

For this reason, I applaud the secretary of state for objecting to the new law, and the attorney general for exercising her power to declare it unconstitutional. A law that casts aside the valid signatures of our citizens is an embarrassment, and the new Legislature should repeal this lame-duck mistake at their earliest opportunity.

Patrick L. Anderson founded the Michigan-based consulting firm Anderson Economic Group in 1996. He authored the 2006-initiated law that repealed the Single Business Tax, and the 1992 Term Limit Amendment to the Michigan Constitution.