Pedersen v. Bennett (12/5/2012)

December 13, 2012

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That the Proponents of the Quality Education and Jobs Act Substantially Complied with the Initiative Requirements Based on the Unique Circumstances Presented.

Plaintiffs support an initiative called the Quality Education and Jobs Act.  In applying for a serial number for the initiative, Plaintiffs inadvertently submitted to Secretary of State Ken Bennett two differing versions of the initiative:  a full version on a CD and a paper version that omitted 15 lines of text.  The full version was circulated with the petition sheets, and more than 290,000 voters signed petitions to place the initiative on the November 2012 ballot.  The Secretary of State’s office, however, rejected the initiative because “the signature pages [were] not attached to a full and correct copy of the initiative measure filed with [the] office” based on its belief that the paper copy was the “official” copy.  Plaintiffs applied for a writ of mandamus and the superior court ruled that the Secretary of State’s Office acted arbitrarily in rejecting the initiative.  The Secretary appealed directly to the Arizona Supreme Court.

The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed.  The Court explained that because Arizona has a strong policy supporting the people’s exercise of the initiative power, courts liberally construe initiative requirements and apply a substantial compliance test.  The Court held that Plaintiffs satisfied the initiative requirement that they attach “a full and correct copy of the title and text” of the initiative to “[e]ach sheet containing petitioners’ signatures,” Ariz. Const. art. 4, pt. 1, § 1(9), by attaching the intended, full version to the petitions.  The Court also held that the Plaintiffs substantially complied with A.R.S. § 19-111(A), which required them to file an application “on a form to be provided by the secretary of state” that sets forth “the text of the proposed . . . measure to be initiated.”  Although they filed two different versions of the initiative, they did so without any intent to defraud or deceive, and there was no significant danger that voters would be confused or deceived under the circumstances of this case.

The Court rejected Secretary Bennett’s argument that the paper copy was the “official” copy and that the full version was merely accepted as a courtesy, noting that the law does not define “official” copy.  The Court also rejected Secretary Bennett’s argument to deviate from the substantial compliance test, explaining that the test strikes the appropriate balance between protecting voters’ rights to the initiative process.

The Court denied Plaintiffs’ request for attorneys’ fees under A.R.S. § 12-2030(A), finding that the law did not impose on Secretary Bennett a specific duty when a party files two different versions of an initiative, and thus a fee award was not mandatory.

Chief Justice Berch authored the opinion; Vice Chief Justice Bales and Justice Brutinel concurred.