Oklahoma High Court Rules State Must Accept Signatures on Sentencing Ballot Measure

The Oklahoma Judicial Center, home to the state’s Supreme Court in Oklahoma City. (Photo via Daniel Mayer / Wikipedia)

OKLAHOMA CITY (CN) — The Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered the state Tuesday to accept over 260,000 in signatures collected for a criminal justice reform ballot question that seeks to end sentence enhancements for nonviolent crimes.

The bipartisan Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform proposed State Question 805 last November, which would ask voters in November’s election to ban the use of nonviolent felonies to enhance sentences, including the use of minimum and maximum terms. 

The measure would also allow those convicted to seek sentence modifications if their enhanced sentence based on a previous nonviolent felony exceeds the current maximum sentence for their crime.

The group Yes on 805’s initiative has collected over 260,000 signatures to get on the ballot — only approximately 178,000 are required to do so. But Republican Secretary of State Michael Rogers halted signature collections on March 18 due to the Covid-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders and has refused to accept the signatures. On May 7, Yes on 805 asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to rule on the dispute.

The effort is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform.

In a 5–2 majority ruling, the high court concluded the state is compelled to “begin the counting process” as soon as the circulation period is terminated by the petitioners.

“While the signature-gathering deadline was temporarily halted, or tolled, by Respondent on March 28, 2020, with the approval of the Governor under the latter’s emergency powers pursuant to the statewide COVID-19 emergency, this does not alter Proponent’s statutory rights,” the opinion states. “The circulation period began, but it has not ended, and thus we are still within the circulation period.”

The court rejected the state’s concern that counting signatures during the pandemic would “present practical difficulties,” citing Republican Governor Kevin Stitt’s executive orders authorizing state agencies to make needed emergency acquisitions and creating emergency rules to respond.

“The Court finds Respondent has not established the signature-counting process cannot be performed in an efficient manner, while also taking the necessary safety precautions for those involved,” the opinion states. “The Court is not convinced Respondent would be unable to procure the tools to carry out the signature-counting process.”

The majority noted that Yes on 805 has offered to pay for and provide a facility where social distancing guidelines could be observed.

In granting Yes on 805’s writ of mandamus, the court is giving the state ten days to begin counting signatures.

Justice James Winchester did not vote on the ruling, while Justice Tom Colbert did not participate.

Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform said after the ruling that the ballot measure “will ensure we aren’t spending billions of dollars on costly and ineffective sentences” for non-violent crimes.

“A top ten state demands a criminal justice system that uses taxpayer dollars wisely,” it posted on Instagram.

Sarah Edwards, president of Yes on 805, is hopeful the ruling “will prompt quick action” from Secretary Rogers to get the measure on the ballot this year.

“This is a victory for the 260,000 Oklahomans who supported Yes on 805 with their signature and expect to see it on a ballot in 2020,” she said in a statement. “We’re grateful the court has ruled in favor of honoring the democratic ballot initiative process and look forward to turning in our signatures as soon as possible.”

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