Associated Press Writer
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Facing a fast-approaching deadline, lawyers spent an hour in federal court Thursday arguing over whether to make public the names of Utahns who signed a petition to place an ethics initiative on the state ballot next fall.
Thursday was the final day for 95,000 signatures to be submitted in order to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Among other things, the initiative would create an independent ethics commission, a code of conduct for state lawmakers and limit campaign contributions.
Late Wednesday, Utahns for Ethical Government sued the state and all of its county clerks to keep secret the identity of anyone who signed the petitions.
The group worries that making the names public would open them up to pressure from initiative opponents to withdraw their support.
A new state law allows petition signers to pull their name within 30 days after the signatures are submitted.
In arguments before U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups on Thursday, Alan Smith said his group believes the signers are making a political statement and have a constitutional right to keep their identity secret. He likened the process to the secret ballots cast during the state's political caucuses.
The First Amendment provides protection from those petitioning their government, he said.
"I think it's speech in its purest form," Smith said, who asked the judge for a temporary order to keep the names private until the legal issues can be fully briefed and argued.
State officials responded that the signers don't have First Amendment protections and don't have an expectation of privacy.
Tom Roberts of the Utah attorney general's office said signing a petition is more like initiating a legislative process, similar to a lawmaker's public act of submitting a bill.
He challenged the lawsuit on several other grounds, including that long-standing state laws allows the names to be made public and that Utahns for Ethical Government and the series of anonymous people who sued don't have proper legal standing to bring the case.
Waddoups scheduled a hearing later in the day to address the issue of legal standing.
Meanwhile, supporters of the initiative began a final push Thursday to collect more signatures.
UEG Chair Kim Burningham says at least 77,000 have been collected but that doesn't include those submitted directly to county clerks, nor does it include electronic signatures that may be challenged in court.
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