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Voters might get a chance next year to decide whether to call a special election to fill U.S. Senate vacancies, rather than filling the position through gubernatorial appointment.
On Oct. 21, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, based on a recommendation from state Attorney General Gregg Renkes, rejected a proposed ballot initiative to require special elections to fill Senate vacancies.
But initiative sponsors sued the state and Anchorage Super- ior Court Judge Mark Rindner on Thursday ordered Leman to certify the ballot initiative petition and distribute signature books by the close of business Monday.
Rindner said he was not deciding on constitutionality of the issue, and it is "complicated, muddled and a far from clear issue" and "not well-defined by a body of case law."
"The people ought to have the chance to decide if they want to sign petitions to get it on the ballot," Rindner said.
Rindner also concurred with arguments raised by the initiative group Trust the People that the question of constitutionality can be raised by the courts at a later date.
Renkes said last week the initiative would violate the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He said passage of the initiative would prevent the Legislature from repealing the law for two years, thus denying the body authority granted by the U.S. Constitution.
The initiative was filed in response to Gov. Frank Murkowski's appointment last year of his daughter Lisa Murkowski to fill his vacated seat upon becoming governor.
Anchorage Rep. Eric Croft, one of three House Democrats that sponsored the initiative, called the decision "a big victory for the peoples' initiative rights."
"Anyone who's taken a civics class in high school knows you don't review laws that haven't been passed," he said.
Renkes told the Associated Press he will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. He said he would not request a delay in the judge's order.
"I'm not interested in delaying the process," Renkes said.
Leman quickly complied with the court order, certifying the petition shortly after the decision.
"While I still concur with the attorney general's recommendation, the court has spoken and I will follow its direction," Leman said in a prepared statement. "I am pleased that this has been resolved quickly, and I will do my part to assist the initiative petitioners."
Trust the People must gather more than 23,000 signatures by Jan. 12 - just over 10 weeks - to make it onto the 2004 election ballot.
Karen Compton, initiative coordinator for Trust the People, said the group has raised about $35,000 in donations to pay organizers and about 80 signature gatherers.
"It will be a full-court press," she said.