Tetonia Voters Appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court
Tetonia Voters Appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court, Abutters Allowed to Intervene
Many of you have asked, "What’s the deal with Tetonia? I know something happened with an annexation, an election, and then a lawsuit – but I forgot the details. Can you give me a quick refresher?"
A: If you recall, way back at the beginning of 2010, the Tetonia City Council voted to annex a huge 267-acre parcel of wetlands and fields south of town – roughly doubling the size of the city. CLICK HERE to see a map. Many people who live in Tetonia thought that was a bad idea, so the residents of Tetonia petitioned to put this annexation on the city ballot for May 25, 2010. The election was overwhelmingly successful. By a vote of 56 to 31, the voters of Tetonia repealed that annexation through a referendum election.
Q: Didn’t the referendum election settle the matter?
A: Well, the voters thought it settled the matter! Instead, the family that owns the annexed land filed a lawsuit in August of 2010 asking that the referendum be declared meaningless and void – essentially undoing this act of direct democracy by the people. When this suit showed up on the state repository, VARD Program Director/ Staff Attorney Anna Trentadue let the voters in Tetonia know what was happening, since nobody had told them that their vote was on the chopping block.
When the voters learned what was going on, they wanted help defending their rights. Anna and David Axelrod (VARD Board President) decided to offer their legal services to defend the rights of the people of Tetonia free of charge. In September of 2010, David and Anna formally entered the legal proceedings on behalf of four Tetonia residents who voted in the referendum election.
Q: So does that mean that the voters are being heard in court?
A: Not exactly. Or more specifically, not yet. The District Court ruled that the voters don’t have what’s known in legalese as “standing” to become a full-fledged party to the lawsuit.
David and Anna respectfully disagreed with that conclusion and more hearings were held to consider our arguments. In the mean time, they also joined two additional abutters as clients who don’t live in Tetonia, but own land that is almost completely surrounded by the now de-annexed property. Interestingly, the attorney for the landowners who originally filed the suit agreed that both the voters and abutters ought to be made full parties so that they could have their ‘day in court.’ In addition, the city attorney for Tetonia has been asking the court for both groups of clients to be allowed into the lawsuit from day one as they are the ones with a real interest in defending the referendum election.
The Court still denied the intervention of the 4 voters. However, on July 6th, the District Court did allow the intervention of the two abutters. Because these abutters do not reside in the City, they were not eligible to vote in the referendum election, so the question of the standing of the voters still remains at issue.
Q: Does that mean that your case is over?
A: No. David and Anna filed an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court at the end of June to get a definitive answer on the “standing” question of the 4 voters. In a normal situation, the courts look at how they decided similar cases in the past, and then use those similar cases to help them decipher the rules for the new case. In this Tetonia lawsuit, there really isn’t anything similar that has ever been decided by Idaho courts. We are in unchartered territory. It’s just not an everyday kind of a case. So with any luck, the Idaho Supreme Court will be excited to tackle this novel question of law.
Q: Why is getting into this lawsuit such a big deal?
A: For one, the property has 267-acres of wetlands and farm fields that were not within city limits. It was open space and sensitive wildlife habitat. Secondly, voting is a fundamental constitutional right invoking both 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment privileges. The plaintiff seeks to bypass these rights and undo a legitimately conducted election. What about the finality of elections? In addition, the people’s powers to hold referendum elections are also at stake. The Idaho Constitution grants the power of referendum directly to the people of Idaho. Our state codes and Tetonia’s city ordinances also declare that the people shall have the right to vote in referendum elections. The position of this lawsuit is that it seeks to void these fundamental rights and privileges as applied to annexations.
One right that doesn’t seem to exist is the right to declare a referendum election meaningless. Yet, that is precisely what the plaintiff seeks to do in this case. This question of honoring the finality of elections will have far-reaching effects across Idaho. Because this is such a unique case, it will almost certainly set the standard for how the courts deal with this question in the future. Simply stated, the people whose voting and referendum rights are on the chopping block must have the chance to defend those rights in court. If they aren’t allowed to speak on their own behalf, who will speak for them?
Q: Is there anything VARD members can do to help?
A: As mentioned before, we are doing this this free of charge. . . and we’re still committed to that. But as you can imagine, the fact that we’re filing an appeal to the Supreme Court before we’ve gotten anywhere close to arguing the merits of the case shows that despite the agreement of all the parties, we’re going to have to do this the hard way. In order to sustain this fight, we need the support of people like you. One great way to make a difference in this fight is to give to VARD or become a VARD member. Thanks for all of your interest and support!