TABOR, citizen initiatives targeted by frivolous Fenster lawsuit
Apparently not content with killing TABOR (Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights constitutional amendment) by the thousand cuts (well, 15 and counting) of Colorado Supreme Court “interpretations” of TABOR’s viability in individual cases (most notoriously, the 2009 “Mill Levy Tax Freeze” property tax increase and the 2008 “fees don’t count as taxes” case leading to the Colorado Car Tax), TABOR’s foes have decided to swing for the bleachers by targeting the amendment’s passage via the citizen initiative process – which the lawsuit claims is an unconstitutional practice.
The lawsuit was filed in Federal court on Monday by a group predominantly composed of current and former elected officials (including both Democrats and Republicans, although all current Republican legislators and the party organization vigorously oppose the lawsuit, in defense of the Colorado Constitution and the right of citizen initiative). The lead attorney and “mastermind” behind the lawsuit is “superlawyer” Herbert L. Fenster – who has been shopping around the idea for over a year before finding enough plaintiffs and other attorneys (including former Democrat Congressman David Skaggs and former Democrat state senator Mike Feeley) to sign to the case. Fenster and Skaggs both work at the firm McKenna, Long & Aldridge LLP, while Feeley works at the politically connected Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck law firm (a powerhouse Democrat political brokerage).
However, for a “superlawyer,” Fenster’s lawsuit is based on the most tenuous of legal grounds…
Legal precedent – including two relevant Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decisions – is clear; Fenster’s lawsuit is frivolous, the “Republican form of government” language in the Constitution’s “Guarantee Clause” (United States Constitution, Article IV, Section 4 – “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government“) has been repeatedly ruled non-justiciable (meaning, not subject to determination by the courts), and constitutional constraints on government are, by definition, constitutionally allowed…
The two relevant SCOTUS cases on the “Guarantee Clause” have unambiguously held the “Republican form of government” language to be non-justiciable:
In Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. 1 (1849), the Supreme Court rejected an attempt to put the “republican character” of state government subject to judicial review, holding that “it rests with Congress to decide what government is the established one in a State … as well as its republican character.” The court, properly exercising judicial restraint, held the “Guarantee Clause” to be a political question, not a judicial one – and therefore not subject to review by the courts (i.e. non-justiciable).
A more recent case, Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company v. Oregon, 223 U.S. 118 (1912) dealt specifically with a challenge to the use of citizen initiatives in states (such as Colorado’s TABOR Amendment). In that case, the Court also held that challenges to a state’s “republican character” are non-justiciable political questions:
The enforcement of the provision in § 4 of Art. IV of the Constitution that the United States shall guarantee to every State a republican form of government is of a political character, and exclusively committed to Congress, and as such is beyond the jurisdiction of the courts.
It doesn’t get more clearly stated than that.
Since even a casual review of the legal literature by a non-attorney can turn up the clear and definitive legal precedent that leaves the lawsuit devoid of justification and any prospect for success in court, Fenster’s Folly clearly meets the definition of a “frivolous, groundless, and vexatious” lawsuit. The Colorado Attorney General (along with any parties joining in the defense) should pursue recovery of costs (taxpayer dollars) spent in defending the suit against all attorneys and plaintiffs involved.
Although an award of attorneys’ fees is rare (Clear The Bench Colorado won just such an award against “Colorado Ethics Watch” – CEW, pronounced “sue”, it’s what they do – one of only a few in the last decade) it can be done (although actually collecting on the judgement may take months, or years), when opposing counsel pursued legal action knowing they had little chance of prevailing or failed to do basic research before filing.
Such abuse of the courts for political posturing can and should be discouraged…
Given the unambiguous and overwhelming constitutional precedent against the case, Fenster’s Folly must be viewed for what it clearly is: a massive PR stunt that’s merely the opening salvo in part of a concerted attack on Colorado’s Constitution and the citizen initiative process in Colorado.
Ironically, part of that attack is likely to come in the form of legislatively referred ballot measures and/or “citizen” initiatives (such as state senator Rollie Heath’s “for the children” tax hike proposal) along with additional court cases to nibble away at TABOR (the Colorado Supreme Court is a perfect 0-for-15 in upholding Article X Section 20 of the Colorado Constitution – almost as perfect losers as the 0-for-16 2008 Detroit Lions; another reason Colorado has been called a “Judicial Hellhole“).
A more detailed (and highly informative) discussion of the constitutionality of the citizen initiative and referendum processes may be found in the Texas Law Review article, “A Republic, Not a Democracy? Initiative, Referendum, and the Constitution’s Guarantee Clause” by Professor Robert G. Natelson.
Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts. We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.
Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.