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Surprise! Eighth Circuit Discovers 12-Month Deadline for Filing Initiated Amendment Language

When I received the Eighth Circuit’s solid affirmation of my challenge to South Dakota’s unconstitutionally early 12-month deadline for submitting initiative petitions, I considered teasing Senator Jim Bolin and other Republican constitutionalist poseurs about how I had just changed their beloved state constitution with the stroke of a legal pen (well, that, and four years of federal litigation). After all, the 12-month deadline for filing initiative petitions to put constitutional amendments to a vote appears not only in statute but also in Article 23 Section 1 of the South Dakota Constitution:

Amendments to this Constitution may be proposed by initiative or by a majority vote of all members of each house of the Legislature. An amendment proposed by initiative shall require a petition signed by qualified voters equal in number to at least ten percent of the total votes cast for Governor in the last gubernatorial election. The petition containing the text of the proposed amendment and the names and addresses of its sponsors shall be filed at least one year before the next general election at which the proposed amendment is submitted to the voters. A proposed amendment may amend one or more articles and related subject matter in other articles as necessary to accomplish the objectives of the amendment; however, no proposed amendment may embrace more than one subject. If more than one amendment is submitted at the same election, each amendment shall be so prepared and distinguished that it can be voted upon separately [emphasis of deadline added; South Dakota Constitution, Article 23 Section1, last amended 2018.11.06].

The constitutionalization of that deadline is part of why District Court Judge Charles Kornmann declined to overturn the 12-month deadline for amendment petitions. But with its declaration that the 12-month deadline for any initiative petition, statutory or amendatory (amendmental? amendacious?), violates the First Amendment, the Eighth Circuit appeared to say that the state may no longer enforce that clause of Article 23 Section 1. The offending language remains on the books, but Friday’s ruling that a 12-month deadline is unconstitutional and unenforceable changes the practical effect of the state constitution on the petition process.

Or so I thought until I reached the final footnote on the next-to-final page of Judge L. Steven Grasz‘s dissentless opinion, in which the court offers this surprising bit of dicta:

We note Article 23, Section 1 of the South Dakota Constitution requires the text of the proposed constitutional amendment and the names and addresses of its sponsors to be submitted a year before the general election. It is silent as to the deadline for petition signatures [Judge L. Steven Grasz, Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, SD Voice v. Noem II, opinion, 2023.02.17, p. 15, footnote 5].

Far be it from me to argue with the conservative appellate court judges that just gave South Dakotans their biggest win against the Republican war on initiative and referendum in the last 20 years. But the Eighth Circuit offers a novel reading of the sentence I bold above in the middle of Article 23 Section 1. Everyone with whom I have ever discussed the petition process has read that clause to mean “the petition with all the necessary voter signatures”. The preceding clause of Article 23 Section 1 does refer to those signatures, but the deadline clause does not. The Eighth Circuit is saying that we have been reading words into the deadline clause that are not there. Article 23 Section 1 doesn’t say when we have to submit our signed petition. Article 23 Section 1 says when we have to submit the petition as it is to be circulated, with the text of the proposed amendment that we will show people when we ask for their signatures.

This quizzical footnote isn’t just saying, “No, Cory didn’t just change the state constitution.” The Eighth Circuit’s novel reading of Article 23 Section 1 also seems to be forging a new, never-before observed deadline in the initiated amendment process. While the Eighth Circuit has declined to tell us and has declined to let the Honorable Judge Kornmann tell us when we have to submit our signed petitions with the mandate of at least 35,017 registered voters to put an initiated amendment on the ballot but has let stand Judge Kornmann’s finding that twelve months before the election is too darned early for that final deadline, the Eighth Circuit is saying that if we citizens propose an amendment, then before we go get signatures, we have to file our final proposed language on a petition form with the Secretary of State no later than 12 months before the election.

Now South Dakota has created a whole bunch of delays in the initiative process that the Eighth Circuit’s ruling does not touch. Sponsors have to submit the first draft of their initiatives to the Legislative Research Council, which gets up to 15 business days to review and comment on the proposed language. Sponsors then submit their initiatives with any revisions to the Attorney General, who gets up to 60 days to draft a title and explanation, 10 more days to take public comment on that title and explanation, and 10 more days to publish a final title and explanation. Only after the completion of that lengthy review can sponsors file their final initiative language with the Secretary of State in the form of a petition to be circulated.

So to ensure that the final language of a initiated amendment can be filed with the Secretary of State no later than twelve months before the general election, sponsors of amendments will have to get their ideas for amendments to the LRC at least 100 days before that early November deadline.

Practically speaking, if you want to amend South Dakota’s constitution and put that amendment to a vote at the November 5, 2024, general election, you need to file the final form of your petition as it is to be circulated with the Secretary of State by Monday, November 6, 2023. To ensure that your initiated amendment gets through the LRC/AG review process in time to meet that deadline, you need to submit your initial amendment draft to the LRC by July 28, 2023.

Whew—I’m reading a lot in this one footnote. But this footnote says something I’ve never heard said.

This footnote indicates that the Eighth Circuit and my successful lawsuit have not thrown the state constitution in peril of spontaneous mob combustion. Constitutional amendments can’t pop up out of nowhere during an election year and suddenly change our founding document. The Eighth Circuit says that our state constitution says that we must file the official language of the amendment—not the tens of thousands signatures calling for the vote on that amendment, but just the text of the amendment—at least one year before the election. The statutory folderol festooned upon the process means that sponsors must come up with their ideas for amendments at least one year, three months, and several extra days before the election. Before any initiated amendment comes to a public vote, the voters will have at least 15 months to read the text and think about whether they want to back it or beat it.

So relax, Senator Bolin. I didn’t just change the South Dakota Constitution. But much to my surprise, I did help the Eighth Circuit discover a whole new deadline in our petition process.


  1. grudznick 2023-02-19 11:45

    Mr. Bolin probably has lots of new, entertaining ideas in store for the next sessions of the legislatures. Maybe he can squeak one or two into the legislatures this year, too.

  2. Donald Pay 2023-02-19 13:31

    The Legislature has done a mighty great job of bollixing up Article XXIII Section 1. Can citizens figure out a way to unbollixing the entire ballot measure system from the mess created by the people who purport to be the Legislature? I mean, really, those folks on Third Floor can’t do anything right. It might help if they would stop taking orders from out-of-state bill mills and wackadoodles who are just in Pierre to do the bidding of the special interests. It would great to figure out a way to keep the Legislature completely out of the citizens’ right to initiate and refer. If I were in South Dakota I would be proposing a citizens’ commission to straighten out the mess the Legislature has made with regard to the initiative and referendum.

  3. grudznick 2023-02-19 15:11

    Mr. Pay. You know better than most that citizens do not have the choppers to sort through this business. I propose the Governor appoint a panel.

  4. All Mammal 2023-02-19 15:56

    I have the choppers…all kinds, even spares.

  5. grudznick 2023-02-19 17:19

    I expect Mr. Bolin, with his keen knowledge of history and being a teacher and all will be put in charge of the task forces. As he should.

  6. larry kurtz 2023-02-19 17:27

    In 2014 Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Rep. Susan Wismer seemed incredulous when one of her extremist Earth hater counterparts, Rep. Jim Bolin, attacked Black Hills State University President Kay Schallenkamp for her work greening that campus.

  7. Arlo Blundt 2023-02-19 19:02

    Kay Schallenkamp was an extremely competent administrator as President of Black Hills State. I thought she did an excellent job of beautifying the campus and redesigning that important state institution for the next century. Senator Bolin is a “put it back the way it was” type, never satisfied with progress, who yearns for a simpler, more primitive time in our state’s history. We all bear the weight of Mr. Bolin’s prejudices.

  8. Donald Pay 2023-02-19 19:27

    The Governor may appoint a committee if she wants, but I will appoint the citizen committee. The citizen committee will include a majority of people drawn from those who have sponsored or collected signatures on a ballot measure in the last 40 years. We will have a South Dakota historian, a scholar of South Dakota government, a former SOS or former assistant assistant in the SOS office who oversaw the initiative petitioning process. We will include one representative from a committee who opposed a ballot measure.

    Our mission is to make the ballot measure process less bureaucratic, adhere to constitutional values, require immediate implementation. We will consider whether initiatives that pass can be amended by the legislature.

  9. grudznick 2023-02-19 19:36

    Mr. Pay, I doubt the Governor will allow a fellow who is not a resident of South Dakota to appoint any committees, but if she does, could grudznick be your scholar of government or maybe the historian fellow? If not, could I be the breakfast caterer for your meetings?

  10. grudznick 2023-02-19 20:22

    Also, could Mr. Gant be the former SOS who sits next to grudznick on the panel you appoint?

  11. Nick Nemec 2023-02-19 21:59

    grudznick and Mr. Gant could arm wrestle for the catered committee breakfast left overs.

  12. Donald Pay 2023-02-20 14:18

    Well, a citizen committee would be great, but, as Cory thinks, it’s probably better to deal with the big issue at hand: set a new deadline that meets the requirements of Kornmann’s ruling. While Kornmann was slapped down in being able to impose a date on South Dakota, he makes a wise choice in May 7. I believe an April or May date served well for a couple decades after years of having no firm deadline. On the other hand Cory suggests July 7, which is also a good choice.

    If the Legislature sets something outside Kornmann’s “First Amendment range,” they would be inviting another suit that they will lose. If they fail to act to set a deadline, they risk violating Kornmann’s decision, and will be thumbing their nose at the rule of law. Absent a deadline, initiative sponsors are free to turn in their petitions whenever they decide that meets Kornmann’s “First Amendment range” and that can be processed prior to the date the ballot must be readied.

    I think I will hold my committee in abeyance until these important tasks are completed.

  13. bearcreekbat 2023-02-20 15:59

    $2 USC 1988 provides the legal basis for the State to pay all of the attorneys fees and cost in the case. How much will the State have to pay Mr. Leach?

  14. e platypus onion 2023-02-20 17:35

    OT but glorious news none the less…. James O’Keefe got the boot from his Project Veritas after internal power struggle over treatment of employees. Too bad. So sad.

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