Pro-marijuana advocates got a boost this week when Anchorage Superior Court Judge John Suddock ordered Lt. Gov. Loren Leman to accept almost 200 initiative signature booklets rejected in January on "trivial rule violations."
The initiative, which would decriminalize private use of marijuana for those 21 and older, could make it on the ballot for the 2004 general election, if certified by the Division of Elections.
Initiative sponsors submitted nearly 50,000 signatures for certification on Nov. 14, 2002. But the following January, Leman rejected 194 of the 484 signature booklets submitted by the initiative sponsors.
The rejected booklets represent more than 40 percent of the signatures gathered by initiative sponsors, leaving the petition 7,045 signatures short of its 21,737 goal.
Leman threw out 188 of the booklets because those who collected the signatures did not fill out sponsor accountability reports, identifying who collected the signatures. Each book holds about 150 signatures.
Three booklets were rejected because those collecting the signatures were not registered to vote.
Another booklet was rejected because the circulator did not check a box on the front cover stating he was paid to collect the signatures. Two other booklets similarly were rejected because they did not identify the name of the organization paying the circulator to collect the signatures.
Girdwood's Scot Dunnachie, a campaign manager for the initiative, said the petition was thrown out on technicalities.
"By regulation, I was supposed to turn in an accountability report saying who I passed the books out to," Dunnachie said. "They should have fined us for it. Instead they just didn't count the signatures."
On Tuesday, Judge Suddock agreed.
"Our Supreme Court has reiterated on several occasions that the right to initiative is not to be defeated by technical rule violations," the court decision read.
It also notes that while the Division of Elections might not have deliberately hindered the sponsors, it also did nothing to alert them about the filing errors.
"The Court is hesitant to find on this record that the Division of Elections lay as a snake in the grass, knowing that the initiative committee was at risk by virtue of its reporting errors ... However, the Division was, at least, asleep at the switch," the decision states.
But Dunnachie said he suspectd that Leman rejected the initiative because of his own personal philosophy against legalized marijuana.
"We anticipated some type of adversity from Loren Leman," Dunnachie said, noting that it was one of the reasons they collected so many extra signatures. "I do feel that there was something personal there. It is rare that an initiative is thrown out over a regulation."
Leman denied the claim that he was not impartial in the decision.
"That's incorrect," he said from his Anchorage office. "I have certified initiatives that I don't agree with, and I have not certified initiatives that I do agree with."
Leman acknowledged that he does not support the initiative but said his personal opinion was not a factor in the decision.
When asked if the Division of Elections maintains the same level of technical scrutiny for every ballot initiative signature booklet Leman said: "I don't know. I assume so."
Leman noted that he was not personally involved in reviewing the signature booklets.
"I can't tell you how they scrutinize every single booklet," he said. "I believe they are fair and honest."
The Alaska Department of Law has until Oct. 23 to decide whether it will appeal the decision, according to Department of Law Spokeswoman Theresa Woelk. If it does, the case will go to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.