The Mississippi Supreme Court will soon decide the fate of the state’s medical marijuana program and the ballot initiative process after a busy day of oral arguments Wednesday.
Decisions are issued by the court every Thursday at 1:30 p.m. and Chief Justice Michael Randolph promised a quick decision in the case.
“We're going to take everything that we've read and that we’ve heard today, and we'll take it under advisement,” Randolph said before he adjourned the proceedings. “It’s an issue, an opinion I know many people are waiting on. We're handling this as quickly as possible.”
The oral arguments were the culmination of an October 26 lawsuit filed by the city of Madison seeking to overturn Initiative 65, which won by nearly 58 percent of the vote. Initiative 65 would create a medical marijuana program in the state administered by the state Department of Health.
If the initiative is upheld, the health department is required to have rules and regulations in place by July 1 and to be able to start issuing licenses and identification cards by August 15.
The crux of the city’s arguments is that Initiative 65 is unconstitutional since there are four congressional districts and the number of signatures submitted from at least one of the four districts exceeds the one-fifth of the total number required.
The justices heavily scrutinized both arguments.
“The case before the court isn’t about the wisdom of legalizing medical marijuana,” said Kaytie Pickett, the attorney for the city of Madison. “As Justice Coleman once wrote, this case could be about giraffes, but the constitutional principles would be the same. What this case is about is the secretary of state’s unconstitutional determination of the sufficiency of the petition supporting Initiative 65.”
She argued one of the reasons why Initiative 65 is unconstitutional was that it violated the plain language of Section 273 of the Mississippi Constitution. She also argued that the state doesn’t have two sets of separate congressional districts (four official and five for ballot initiatives as existed in 1990).
The secretary of state says that an attorney general’s opinion issued by then-Attorney General Jim Hood allows a ballot initiative to be constitutional once it receives enough verified signatures in the five congressional districts as they were in 2000.
Seven times the Legislature has proposed concurrent resolutions to change the law since 2003 and all of them have failed.
When asked by Justice Robert Chamberlain about whether citizens would lose the right to amend the state constitution because they were connected to the number of congressional districts, Pickett said the state didn’t have a voter initiative process for over 70 years and democracy proceeded unimpeded.
Madison’s complaint says that the state Constitution prohibits the secretary of state from considering any signatures exceeding one fifth of the total number of signatures required and state law prohibits the secretary of state from putting an initiative on the ballot that doesn’t meet the standard.
Justin Matheny, representing the state of Mississippi and the secretary of state, said that when Section 273 was enacted in 1992, everyone knew its geographic distribution provisions required signatures from the five districts. He also said that Initiative 65 was filed within what the Legislature enacted in 1992, the last time it changed the district requirement for ballot initiatives.
He also cited the Mississippi Development Authority’s ACE Fund and the Mississippi Auctioneer Commission, both of which use the old five congressional districts that date back to 1990.
In briefs, attorneys for the state have argued that undermining the state’s ballot initiative process by an adverse decision could also result in challenges to other successful initiatives such as voter identification and eminent domain reform.