An order issued by Judge Bruce Romanick requires Empower the Taxpayer, the grassroots group which backed Measure 2 (which would have abolished property taxes) to pay the legal fees for naming four county officials in a lawsuit alleging inappropriate use of taxpayer resources to oppose a ballot measure.
The full order is below. A key excerpt:
This Court finds it appropriate to sanction Empower the Taxpayer for naming Divide County Commissioner Doug Graupe, Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner, Wahpeton Finance Director Darcie Huwe, and Williams County Auditor Beth Innis in the complaint because a competent attorney could not have had a good faith belief that a cause of action exists merely for a public official stating his or her opposition to an initiated measure.
Empower the Taxpayer shall pay the reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs associated with defending these individuals in this action. Counsel for these parties will have to attempt to apportion the fees and costs between the named individuals and the two associations. The affidavit shall be submitted to the Court for review regarding fees. Empower the Taxpayer is further ordered to prepare a written retraction of allegations of corruption and allegations of alleged impropriety for anyone expressing their opinions against Measure 2, for state-wide publication at the expense of Empower the Taxpayer. This written retraction will be presented to the Court and the affected Defendant’s for review prior to publishing in the major papers in ND.
Note that the judge is limiting this order to only for of the defendants (Tax Commissioner Cory Fong, among others, were also named). This is because of all the defendants, these four were included only for statements they made as opposed to the use of taxpayer resources.
Frankly, I think the judge is being a bit too vindictive here. It was hardly frivolous to question whether a law prohibiting the use of taxpayer resources to oppose a ballot measure extends to public officials using their official titles. Empower the Taxpayer shouldn’t have to give a pound of flesh because they tested the limits of the law.
I don’t know how Empower the Taxpayer will respond, but my guess is that they’ll likely appeal. And given how rare frivolous judgments are, my guess is they would probably win that appeal. But we shall see.
What’s more, we still have a real problem with groups like the ND Chamber of Commerce, the Association of Counties and the League of Cities getting huge amounts of taxpayer dollars while simultaneously engaging in explicitly political activities.
Groups that lobby, groups that engage in political activism for or against ballot measures and the like, shouldn’t get our tax dollars. If the judges don’t think our laws as written make such practices illegal, then perhaps the law needs to be changed.