Civil Liberties

A Happy Resolution to Paul Jacob's Prosecution for Facilitating Out-of-State Ballot Petitioning


Back in October 2007, I interviewed long-time libertarian activist Paul Jacob (who spent some jail time in the 1980s for refusing to register for the draft) on his prosecution for being involved, essentially, in petitioning for a redress of grievances from the government without following their detailed rules.

Specifically, Oklahoma declared that only residents of the state could petition to get anything on the ballot, with the definition of resident somewhat ambiguous. Some excerpts from Jacob from that interview:

In most of the country now anyone from anywhere can petition. Oklahoma has a residency requirement, but [National Voter Outreach] was told by people with the state election board and secretary of state that this requirement could be met by anyone who moved to Oklahoma and declared themselves a resident. There was no requirement they live the rest of their days in Oklahoma; if they ended up not getting a job after this, they could go elsewhere to find a job. I don't know of any agency you can go to to have them declare you a resident. If the petitioner declares themselves a resident and lists an Oklahoma address, then that's a resident.

That ended up not being true, and Jacob and two of his compatriots got indicted for conspiracy to defraud the state for helping organize and hire such non-resident petitioners. Jacob thought the underlying law was blatantly unconstitutional:

It's a malevolent law designed to do against petition rights and the initiative process what folks in Mississippi in the 1950s and 60s wanted to do against freedom riders coming into the state. It's a law designed to stop us from helping each other control our government.

….If anyone thinking of getting involved as a citizen in the process has to factor in possibly going to prison for 10 years, a lot of husbands and wives will decide that sort of citizen activism isn't for them.

Now the good news: those charges have been dropped, after the law underlying the charges was overturned. From Associated Press via Tulsa World:

Attorney General Drew Edmondson said Thursday he has decided not to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal appeals court that struck down an Oklahoma law barring nonresidents from circulating initiative petitions.

Edmondson also said his office dismissed criminal charges against three people accused of violating Oklahoma's out-of-state petitioner ban……."The statute under which these defendants were charged has been declared unconstitutional, and the appellate process is complete," Edmondson said. "The statute is no longer enforceable."

Paul Jacob of Virginia, a national leader of the term limit movement, Susan Johnson of Michigan, head of a signature-gathering company, and Rick Carpenter of Tulsa, director of Oklahomans In Action, were accused of conspiracy to defraud the state by using out-of-state circulators to collect signatures for the so-called taxpayer bill of rights in 2006.

And Wirkman Virkkala, who hipped me to the good news, has a nice tribute to Jacob, with a possibly controversial conclusion for those who privilege strict constitutionalism above liberty:

…..the verdict that overruled Oklahoma's law was decided on the basis of an expansive reading of the Bill of Rights, as covering the states, and that some strict reconstructionists would say it's a bad ruling.

I have trouble with this position, especially when a looser reading of the Constitution helps good people remain free.

Jacob himself emailed me his official statement of reaction. An excerpt:

The charges brought against us by the attorney general have now been dismissed. They should never have been brought in the first place. We did not break the law and, as we all now know, the law itself is unconstitutional.

Our prosecution has sadly had a chilling effect on Oklahomans, who want to reform their government and to hold it accountable through the petition process. My goal throughout this ordeal has been to encourage Oklahomans and Americans everywhere not to let their rights be eroded through fear and intimidation. Today we have won a victory.

But the battle to protect citizen rights is far from over.

As President of Citizens in Charge, I look forward to working with all Americans to see the voter initiative process triumph over attacks from politicians. The will of the people should always prevail over the desires of politicians.

An entire documentary history of this stupid and now failed prosecution can be found at Free Paul Jacob.