It finally hit me. I was walking the dog with my two youngest. My 17-year-old regaled us with tales from her classes at the local community college. My 9-year-old declared she would learn to speak Japanese, like her sister, and Italian.
Bugsy and I just listened. And then it happened.
What hit me? A noticeable feeling of hope, even confidence. Now, I thought, I’ll get to be in my children’s future.
Earlier that afternoon Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson dismissed charges of “conspiracy to defraud the state” against the Oklahoma Three: Rick Carpenter, a Tulsa political activist; Susan Johnson, head of National Voter Outreach, one of the country’s top petition management firms; and yours truly.
The charge carried a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The Attorney General alleged that we willfully conspired to hire non-residents, non-Oklahomans, to circulate petitions on two ballot measures: One, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a measure to cap state spending; the other, a property rights measure called Protect Our Homes. Edmondson launched a media campaign, writing an op-ed and visiting a TV talk show to expound on how guilty we were.
We were innocent. Those actually managing the petition effort on the ground consulted with state officials and were informed that it was indeed lawful for people to move to Oklahoma to work on the petition drive.
The opinions of the regular enforcers of the law didn’t count, though. The state supreme court kept the Taxpayer Bill of Rights initiative off the ballot, ruling that anyone not intending to “permanently” reside in Oklahoma was not a resident. The court also tossed out the petitions of circulators whose residency status was challenged without ever affording those circulators an opportunity to defend themselves.
One thing was certain: more than 15 percent of Oklahoma voters had very willfully signed to put the issue to a vote . . . a vote they were denied.
That wasn’t enough, however. The issue could always come back via a new petition drive. So could other issues. Soon, the Attorney General decided to go a step further, indicting the three of us on criminal charges. No one was charged as a non-resident circulator. Instead, the state took a swipe at
• one local political activist,
• the head of a major petition company that had worked on numerous conservative and libertarian issues, and
• me, an advocate for many national campaigns for term limits, property rights, spending restraint, and the like.
The prosecution was roundly blasted, right and left, by Steve Forbes and Ralph Nader, by the Wall Street Journal, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Paul Greenberg and Tecumseh Countywide News in central Oklahoma. Most importantly, we were blessed with faith and trust that we would prevail in court, in the end . . . if we could afford to defend our rights for what might have been many years. We were under indictment for a year and four months, paid many legal bills, and still not even a preliminary hearing had been completed.
But just before Christmas, the federal Tenth Circuit struck down Oklahoma’s ban on non-residents circulating petitions, ruling the law an unconstitutional impediment to citizen petitioning. Not only did we not break the law, it wasn’t a law at all.
In the last year, three federal circuits have overturned state residency restrictions, each time by unanimous panels.
Last Wednesday, Edmondson’s request for a rehearing by the Tenth Circuit was denied. On Thursday, he decided not to appeal the Tenth Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme Court after all — and not to prosecute our case.
Case dismissed. We’ve won a victory. The Oklahoma Three are free.
But the battle for citizen control of government, for the right to speak out, to petition one’s government, that struggle is far from over. Free political speech cannot be sustained when regular citizens, who dare to take an active part in politics, face threats of prison or financial destruction, or both.
This prosecution had a chilling effect on petition activity in Oklahoma. And sadly, we of the Oklahoma Three are far from alone.
Last year, I wrote about Doug Guetzloe of Orlando, Florida, threatened with jail time for sending out a postcard talking about candidates. I haven’t yet written about Tim Pope, another victim of Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson.
In Gloucester County, in my home state of Virginia, a judge recently ordered 40 citizens who had sought to recall county supervisors to pay $80,000 in legal fees. The supervisors had run up quite a tab in a lawsuit to block their recall petition. (County taxpayers are to pick up $45,000.)
It seems that those in power have a tendency to want to squelch speech. Especially petitions . . . because petitions allow citizens to truly address issues. Without hiring a lobbyist. And without having to grease any politician’s palm. The initiative petition process end-runs the corrupt cabals that our legislative chambers have become.
Love or loathe Obama, beneficial, empowering change is just not coming from Washington. It can come from regular folks at the state and local level, petitioning for political reform and putting better ideas onto the ballot.
But we have to protect the process. We have to protect the people who work for a voice, for a vote.
Citizens in Gloucester are likely to appeal, maybe with help from the ACLU. And two Republican state delegates from the Gloucester area have introduced statewide legislation to prevent such lawsuits against citizens petitioning their government.
In a recent Common Sense e-letter, I applauded a jury that awarded damages to Denise Carey. The mayor and town government in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, had sought to punish her with attorneys’ fees for a petition drive seeking a local vote on a local fire station.
In Oklahoma, citizens are demanding reform. Legislation that would open up the state’s initiative system and make it usable again is under consideration.
I’m not through fighting back, either. Working for Citizens in Charge and Citizens in Charge Foundation, I’m more driven than ever to work with people all across the political spectrum to protect and expand the right of the people to check their government through initiatives, referendum and recall.
It’s true: Some see the initiative as a threat. My goodness, citizen control of government might break out!
We can always hope. And, as free citizens, work for that day.