The Mississippi Supreme Court held on May 14, 2021 that a citizen initiative to legalize medical marijuana violated the Mississippi Constitution. The decision turned on the loss of a congressional district due to the 2000 Census. Butler v. Watson, Case No. 2020-IA-01199-SCT (May 14, 2021).
The Mississippi Constitution allows amendments in two different ways: (1) by the Mississippi Legislature with a vote from qualified electors; or (2) by citizen initiative. On November 3, 2020, the Secretary of State placed Initiative 65 on the ballot so that Mississippians could weigh in on the issue of medical marijuana. Mississippians voted overwhelmingly (74.1%) to adopt Initiative 65 thus leading the path towards legalization of medical marijuana use in the state.
Why Did the Supreme Court Nullify the Vote?
Mississippi’s Constitution was enacted in 1890. According to the Constitution, a citizen initiative to amend the Constitution must include signatures of qualified electors of each congressional district. The signatures, however, cannot exceed one-fifth of the total number of required signatures. If the proposed initiative contains signatures from a single congressional district exceeding the one-fifth limitation, the Secretary of State cannot consider those signatures before placing an initiative on the ballot.
At the time of the enactment of the Mississippi Constitution, Mississippi had five congressional seats in the United States of House of Representatives. The effect of the twenty percent cap, tied to five congressional districts, was that no more than twenty percent of the total number of required signatures would come from each congressional district. The system guaranteed that each congressional district would be equally a part of the process.
Along came the 2000 Census and federal court intervention. Mississippi lost a representative due to the results of the 2000 census and the Permanent Reapportionment Act of 1929. When Mississippi failed to redraw its congressional districts to be in line with the Census, the federal courts intervened and redrew the districts for the State in 2002. Since that time, Mississippi has had only four congressional districts. However, the Constitution never was amended to change the number of signatures required to place a citizen initiative on the ballot.
After an exhaustive analysis of the Constitutional requirements for a citizen initiative, the Court found that the Secretary of State did not have the authority to place the initiative on the ballot when only four districts submitted signatures. It was impossible for the Secretary of State to follow the Mississippi Constitution to disregard signatures of qualified electors in excess of twenty percent of the total from any one district. “In other words, twenty multiplied by four equals only eighty.” The Court nullified the overwhelming vote to legalize medical marijuana use in Mississippi, noting that the ballot initiative process “cannot work in a world where Mississippi has fewer than five representatives in Congress.”
What Comes Next?
What comes next is anyone’s guess. The Mississippi Legislature has proposed to legalize medical marijuana use in the past few years; however, the proposals never made it out of committee to a floor vote. Given the overwhelming vote, it is quite possible that the Mississippi Legislature will take it upon themselves to amend Mississippi’s Constitution and those proposals will get out of committee to a floor vote.