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The Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City on Jan. 17, 2017. Photo by Luz Gray.

The Nevada Supreme Court says supporters of a ballot measure to ban sanctuary cities in the state must work with a lower court to fix deficiencies in their initiative’s “description of effect” — a directive that almost certainly dooms the initiative from qualifying for the 2018 ballot.

The court, in a 6-1 opinion issued Wednesday, reversed a lower court’s finding that the proposed language in the “Prevent Sanctuary Cities Initiative” ballot question violated Nevada’s single-subject rule for such measures. But it agreed with the District Court that the title and short summary of the petition’s effects didn’t adequately describe what the measure might do if incorporated into the state Constitution.

“Although the description at issue here describes the prohibitory effect of the initiative, the impact of that prohibition on existing policies and laws is not described,” the court wrote in a majority opinion. “By failing to include such effects, the description of effect is deceptive and misleading.”

The court’s order is most likely a fatal blow for the proposed ballot initiative, which has been championed by Republican state Senate Leader Michael Roberson. The Prevent Sanctuary Cities PAC, which sponsored the ballot question and introduced it last year, must now start over and collect 112,544 signatures — including 28,136 from each of the state’s congressional districts — before a June 19 deadline, or it won’t appear on the November ballot.

Roberson, honorary chairman of the PAC, focused on the positive by highlighting that the court sided in part with them in the ruling.

"We hope to have sufficient time to obtain the necessary signatures by June 19 in order to qualify for the 2018 ballot," Roberson said in a statement provided to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Regardless, today's ruling is a victory in the longer term. Obtaining certainty on the ballot language enables us to also consider a statutory initiative whereby we would have until mid-November to obtain signatures for the 2020 ballot. Our efforts have been delayed, but our right to bring this question to the voters for their decision will not be denied."

Financial disclosure forms reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal, which show the PAC didn’t raise or spend any money in 2017, suggest the group may not have been aggressively working to gather the necessary signatures to land the measure on the ballot even before the court ruling. Gathering signatures is a time- and money-intensive process that often calls for paid canvassers and collecting significantly more signatures than the threshold because many are disqualified later in the process.  

Amy Rose, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, which had helped bring the suit, celebrated the ruling.

“We’re thrilled the Court recognized this petition’s deceptive nature," Rose said in a statement. "This is a victory for Nevada’s immigrant communities and also for Nevada voters, who deserve to know exactly what they’re signing when endorsing a petition that would alter the Nevada Constitution.”

The case, which was heard before the court earlier this month, comes after a District Court judge sided with challengers including the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada in January and said the measure both violated the state’s single-subject rule for ballot measures and had an insufficient description of effect.

The court pointed to arguments from ballot measure challengers, including the nonprofit Tu Casa Latina, which said the measure could limit the power of local governments to address matters of local concern and inhibit their ability to implement programs and public health and safety policies.

But part of the group’s appeal focused on an aspect of state law requiring ballot initiatives to submit a 200-word summary of the proposal’s intended effects along with forms used to gather signatures to qualify it for the ballot. Prevent Sanctuary Cities PAC’s signature form’s description largely copied the language of the proposed initiative itself, which the court said was “insufficient.”

The court also said the title of the petition — “Prevent Sanctuary Cities Initiative” — compounded the problem, and said the title was “potentially misleading.” Justices wrote that the title “is a catch-all that is subject to shifting and imprecise meanings, not a neutral, descriptive phrase.”

Justices said the Nevada Supreme Court isn’t the right venue for determining the actual effects of the petition — the lower court is — and said the PAC that’s working on the ballot measure should work with the court to determine what fixes would create a suitable summary of the initiative.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Michael Cherry argued that the measure did violate the single subject rule because, as challengers argued, “it is excessively general … and therefore does not promote informed decision-making.”

This story was updated at 3:55 p.m. on May 16, 2018 to add a statement from state Sen. Michael Roberson and the ACLU.

Sanctuary Cities Order by Michelle Rindels on Scribd

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