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Government of not-the-people

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The legal case involving the Idaho Legislature’s new law governing the ballot initiative process in the state, which was argued before the state Supreme Court this week, ought to be a slam dunk. And maybe it will be.

The court is constrained by the Idaho Constitution, which – in its section setting up the basics for the initiative in Idaho – says explicitly, “The people reserve to themselves the power to propose laws and enact the same at the polls independent of the Legislature.”

There’s also a long-standing legal principle that laws (including constitutional provisions) should never be interpreted in a way that makes them meaningless – that runs directly counter to their clear purpose. That applies to constitutional provisions, too.

The new law, from Senate Bill 1110, is essentially just an extension of the series of laws the legislature has passed not merely to establish some reasonable demonstration of popular support for a ballot measure, but to make the possibility of placing an initiative on the ballot all but impossible. The last time the requirements were increased, several cycles passed before anyone was able to achieve ballot status. In 2018 a measure expanding Medicaid – a proposal deeply opposed by legislative majorities – easily passed voter approval, and for legislators, that seemed to be the last straw:

The people had to be stopped. The state constitution had to be subverted. The new law has a modest-sounding statement of formal intent, but clearly it is intended simply to put an end to voter-generated ballot initiatives.

A recent column by former Idaho Attorney General (and former Chief Justice) Jim Jones on the subject of the Idaho Freedom Foundation and its peculiar conception of liberty led to a rebuttal containing a clear explanation that would apply to the effort to kill the initiative by a thousand cuts. On June 29 Doyle Beck of Idaho Falls delivered this: “Our country is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. And, of course, a democracy, which is mob rule, threatens the existence of our republic, whose Constitution safeguards individual rights against the mob. Sometimes, politicians use the word democracy because they don’t know the difference between one or the other. Some who know the difference claim to say democracy as a kind of shorthand for ‘constitutional republic,’ which I think does a disservice to the meanings of both terms.”

Beck evidently knows the meaning of neither term. The United States was set up as a democracy, meaning that it is governed by the people (the term derives from the Greek demos, meaning the people of a place, and kratia, meaning a form of government). The United States is also a republic, that being the structure, or mechanism, through which the people exercise their rule. A democratic republic is not a contradiction in terms. A non-democratic republic would be something closer to, say, the old Soviet Union.

What Beck has confused is the mechanism or system, which is important but not fundamental, with the basis for authority in our system: The people, whose authority is at the core.

My question for Beck, and the significant number of people who would and do argue as he does, is: If the people should not be in ultimate charge of our system of governing, then who should be?

Who, in other words, would Beck and his allies like to install as dictator? (Actually, in the case of quite a few people in this nation, I can guess at a name.)

Our country has a significant (and scary) cadre of authoritarians, people looking for a big boss to tell them (and all of us) what to do; they’ve given up on the whole governing of-by-and-for the people thing. Legislation like SB 1110 and the ever-ratcheting opposition to initiative governance by the people make ever clearer who they are. You can check the names of the legislators among them on the Idaho Legislature’s website.

My guess, based on its past decisions and general history and some of what happened in the oral argument, is that the Idaho Supreme Court isn’t among them. Idaho can count itself fortunate if that’s the case.
 

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