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Utah Supreme Court rejects Nibley citizen referendum

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Posted at 1:15 PM, Apr 16, 2021

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has overturned a lower court's ruling about citizen referendums in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a ruling issued Friday, the state's top court said citizens in the Cache County town of Nibley who challenged a development project didn't properly follow Utah laws on citizen referendums, even with modifications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, then-Governor Gary Herbert suspended some signature gathering requirements because of the risk of the deadly virus.

The group of residents sought to get a referendum on high-density projects. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Court said, they mailed information to every voter with a link to a website. That was rejected by the Nibley City Clerk, who said it failed to meet requirements about referendum signature packets as required by Utah law.

They sued and a district court judge overruled the city clerk.

"The district court resolved the case on summary judgment. It noted that it was undisputed that the sponsors had failed to procure sufficient signatures through in-person circulation of the paper referendum packet but that they had exceeded the statutory standard if signatures procured through the mailed document were included. And it also indicated that the facts of relevance to the mailed document were essentially undisputed—the 'mailer included voter information and provided the requisite signature sheet' and 'provided voters' with a 'referendum packet' by identifying a URL that directed voters to a web page containing the components of the packet in a PDF file," Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee wrote.

But the Utah Supreme Court disagreed.

"In a pre-pandemic world, the sponsors of a referendum petition would not have been allowed to disseminate paper signature sheets and tell voters where they could find a copy of the referendum packet materials on a public website. The materials on a website would certainly be 'made available' to voters. But we would not say that a person who provided a mere URL or web address to voters has provided a 'copy' of those materials in the referendum packet 'unit' to be 'opened' by the potential signer," Justice Lee wrote. "That same conclusion holds here. The mailer in question did not provide a reproduction or copy of the components of the referendum packet in a single unit to be opened by voters. It instead provided information that voters could use to access those components through proactive efforts of their own. And the mailer thus fell short under our law."

Read the full ruling here: