MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA The state Supreme Court has put an end to the lingering question of whether Montana voters would get to decide three high-profile ballot measures. They won’t. The court ruled unanimously Thursday that none of the votes cast on the measures Constitutional Initiative 97, CI-98 or I-154 will be counted, even though all three will remain on the ballot. “County administrators are instructed not to count the votes for CI-97, CI-98 and I-154 to the extent that this is technically feasible,” the court said in an opinion written by Justice Patricia Cotter. “If the votes must be counted, they will have no force or effect.” The state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a judge’s order invalidating all three initiatives. Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson, who runs elections, immediately said his office would send a “detailed directive” to election administrators telling them not to count, record, report or canvass any votes on the ballot measures. “We want wherever possible there simply not to be any results out there,” he said. CI-97 would have imposed a cap on state spending, CI-98 would make it easier to recall judges, and I-154 would allow property owners to demand and receive compensation if they feel a government action has devalued their property. Opponents to the three measures rallied together to challenge the way the coordinated effort to qualify the measures did its work. They alleged signature gatherers tricked voters into signing some petitions with “bait and switch” tactics, falsely swore in signature certifications to facts they had no personal knowledge about, and purposely gave false addresses in sworn affidavits. District Judge Dirk M. Sandefur of Great Falls ruled last month that signature gatherers used methods that were “permeated by a pervasive and general pattern and practice of fraud and procedural noncompliance.” He said all the signatures gathered by those people must be invalidated and that the initiatives themselves also must be invalidated. The high court, in its 7-0 decision, agreed. “Once opponents established that proponents’ signature gatherers were engaging in deceptive practices, it became the proponents’ burden to produce evidence to the contrary. They failed to do so,” the Supreme Court decision said. “Therefore, we conclude that the district court’s findings and conclusion that proponents’ signature gatherers’ deceptive actions were pervasive was based on substantial evidence and was not clearly erroneous.” The supporters, led by Winifred rancher and political activist Trevis Butcher, who is the campaign coordinator for all three measures, also argued on appeal that they weren’t given enough time to make their case in court proceedings in August and September. The Supreme Court said the Argument was a new issue that could not be raised on an appeal if it was not first presented during the initial trial. The high court also said that Sandefur was correct to hold an accelerated hearings process. Mike Meloy, a Helena attorney who represented opponents of the initiatives, praised the court’s ruling Thursday. “The Supreme Court has upheld the integrity of Montana’s initiative process by ruling that Trevis Butcher and his wealthy, East Coast supporters must not be allowed to benefit from these blatant violations of Montana law,” he said. Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath lauded the decision. “It is imperative that Montana citizens have faith in every step of the ballot-measure process,” he said in a statement. “The Montana Supreme Court’s opinion today upholds the integrity of that process.” Butcher and other initiative supporters did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment Thursday. The court case overshadowed campaigns for and against the measures, which continued as both sides waited for the Supreme Court to make a ruling. CI-97, in particular, drew a large coalition of opponents _ ranging from the likes of the Montana Chamber of Commerce to the AARP. Gov. Brian Schweitzer also was a vocal opponent from the outset. William Hunt Sr. Of Helena, a former Montana Supreme Court justice working against CI-98, said in a statement that the court has “made it clear that proponents of initiatives must follow the law in qualifying initiatives for the ballot.” A different lower court judge also ruled that CI-97 is unconstitutional because it tries to modify more than one part of the constitution, a decision the state’s high court had not yet reviewed. Another initiative case is still in the courts. Initiative 151, which would raise the minimum wage, is being opposed in the courts by some of the people that supported Butcher’s initiatives. No decision has been made in that case.