Against all odds, the Utah Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the legislature’s medical cannabis replacement bill

Posted at 5:20 PM, Feb 05, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-05 22:15:44-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments in a challenge to the legislature's bill that replaced Proposition 2, the medical marijuana ballot initiative.

The state's top court scheduled arguments for March 25 to hear from 52 people who have signed on to an effort to seek a referendum of House Bill 3001, which the legislature used to swap out Prop. 2.

The move surprised even supporters, who knew they faced a longshot challenge.

"The Court is the last resort, check and balance on the executive and legislative branch," said Steve Maxfield, a founder of "The People's Right," which sought a referendum and filed the legal challenge.

After the Utah State Legislature met in special session to swap out Prop. 2 with a bill negotiated between supporters and opponents of the medical cannabis ballot initiative, The People's Right sought a referendum on the new law. A referendum is a public vote on a law the legislature passes.

The Lt. Governor rejected the referendum, declaring that more than two-thirds of the legislature approved it, making it not subject to a referendum. The group then went to the Utah Supreme Court.

All of the members of The People's Right filed pro se, meaning they are representing themselves. Now that they have a hearing before the Supreme Court, they will have an unusual hearing.

"We have 52 petitioners that signed on. Each one is pro se representing themselves. So we’re really in a conundrum," Maxfield told FOX 13 on Tuesday. "How do 52 people who want to speak to the Supreme Court in a redress of grievances do that in a 20 minute time period?"

On Utah's Capitol Hill, lawmakers appeared surprised the Court was even entertaining arguments. Initiative supporters and opponents alike were stunned. House leaders declined to comment on Tuesday until they had reviewed it further.

"We’re a little surprised they would choose to hear that," Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, told FOX 13. "We’ll wait to see what their outcome is and then move forward accordingly."

Sen. Vickers still believed the Court would ultimately uphold the medical cannabis law the legislature passed.

"I really like where it’s at right now, I think it’s serviceable for the public. I would hope the Court sees it the same way," he said.

The appeal by The People's Right is a separate action from a lawsuit filed by Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) and the Epilepsy Association of Utah challenging the replacement bill. That lawsuit is still pending in district court.

The impact of the Court's decision in The People's Right case could affect all the ballot initiatives voters approved in November and whether they can try referendums despite veto-proof majorities in the legislature. Right now, supporters of Proposition 3, the Medicaid-expansion ballot initiative, are fighting to defeat a bill that would replace what voters passed.

"This is encouraging not just for the Prop. 2 folks, but I think for all Utahns that got behind these ballot initiatives," said Andrew Roberts of Utah Decides Healthcare, which sponsored Prop. 3.

Roberts said the case is another example of why there are three branches of government.

"I think it says not only is the legislature out of step with what the people of Utah want, but they might well be out of step with how to interpret the constitution," he said.

In previous rulings, the Court has signaled it has been friendly toward ballot initiatives. Maxfield viewed that as a positive sign.

"The legislature should absolutely be worried because we’re a symptom of people saying 'enough is enough,'" he said. "We’re going to do what we can to correct the system."