On Friday, Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy issued an order reversing the decision of Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to reject petitions for a ballot initiative legalizing retail marijuana in Maine. The decision gives the initiative a second chance to appear on the ballot in November 2016.
The order results from an appeal by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) of the Secretary's March 2, 2016 decision to invalidate over 47,000 signatures in support of the initiative. Over 31,000 of the signatures by a single notary were invalidated because the Secretary found they did not match the notary's signature on file with the Secretary's office.
According to Friday's order (which can be read in full here), the Secretary later adjusted its reasoning for the denial, asserting instead that the petitions were denied "because it was not possible for us to determine that the commissioned Notary Public whose name appeared on these petitions actually administered the oath to the circulators of those petitions." For the Court, this was a key finding, as it led in part to a determination that "there is no claim by the Secretary of State that any of the circulators involved in the invalidated petitions did anything to fail to comply with the constitutional or statutory requirements to allow this initiative to be on the November 2016 ballot." (Emphasis added).
Justice Murphy found that the Secretary's decision to invalidate the signatures was based on a faulty interpretation of the statute governing signature authentication. The Court found that the requirement that the signatures of notaries on the petition forms identically "match" the notaries' signatures on file was a "vague, subjective" standard that "unduly burdens [the] unique and fundamental right to citizen's initiative" and "does not make significant strides in preventing fraud."
The Court also found that the Maine Constitution requires the Secretary's office to review each signature individually for validity, and that the Secretary impermissibly invalidated signatures in bulk.
The decision is a watershed moment for the movement to legalize retail marijuana in Maine. The retail marijuana initiative now has a chance to appear on the November ballot. If successful, the initiative will allow licensing of various types of retail marijuana establishments, including storefronts, manufacturing facilities, and testing labs.
If the Secretary of State wishes to appeal the Court's decision, it must do so within three days of the order's issuance. An appeal would be heard by the Maine Supreme Court and a final decision issued within 30 days of the appeal.
If no appeal is filed, the initiative will appear on the ballot this November.