Wilhelm v. Brewer – 9/25/2008

September 30, 2008

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Initiative Petition Substantially Complies With Statutory and Constitutional Requirements.

Connie Wilhelm challenged the petition form circulated by the Homeowners’ Bill of Rights Committee, the proponents of an initiative measure.  She sought an order barring the Secretary of State from placing the measure on the 2008 general election ballot.  Wilhelm claimed that the petition was not legally sufficient because (1) it had no title, (2) its text was not full and correct, and (3) its petition summary was invalid.  The superior court rejected Wilhelm’s claims, she appealed, and the Supreme Court affirmed.

When considering challenges to the form of initiative petitions, Arizona courts follow a rule of “substantial compliance.”  A court must determine, “whether the petition, considered as a whole, fulfills the purpose of the relevant statutory or constitutional requirements, despite a lack of strict or technical compliance” (internal citations omitted).  The Court first addressed Wilhelm’s challenge that the petition contained no title because the measure’s name neither preceded the text, nor was centered to indicate that it was, in fact, the title.  The Court noted that Arizona law merely requires “some title and some text.”  Section 1 of the petition at issue bore the heading “Title” and provided “[t]his Act may be cited as the ‘Homeowners’ Bill of Rights.’”  Thus, the “title” was clearly denominated as such, was contained in its own section, and complied with statutory and constitutional provisions requiring petitions to have a title.

Petition forms must also include text of no more than one hundred words describing “the principal provisions of the proposed measure.”  Here, Wilhelm claimed that summary was fatally defective because it did not refer to one provision of the proposed measure.  After quoting the summary itself, the Court held that the omission of the particular provision “was not fraudulent and did not create confusion or mislead.”  The proponents included the required warning in the petition that the summary had been prepared by initiative supporters and advised readers to review the entire measure.   

Wilhelm also claimed that the petition was not properly capitalized to indicate newly proposed language.  Reproducing again the language from the petition, the Court noted that the purpose of the requirement of capitalizing new language is “to call attention to amended and added language.”  The Court held that any failure of the petition to contain capitalized words was not fatal because (1) the provision with regard to capitalization is less critical to the statute’s purpose when, as here, entirely new provisions – rather than an amendment of existing provisions – are proposed, and (2) the context confirmed that “viewed as a whole” the provisions of the initiative envisioned “new laws, regardless of the typography.”  Finally, the Court declined Wilhem’s request that it re-visit its “substantial compliance” review for initiative petitions.

Justice Ryan authored the opinion for a unanimous court.