By Glynis Kazanjian
Casa de Maryland, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to halt a state referendum on illegal immigrants receiving in-state college tuition, will no longer challenge the validity or number of petition signatures approved by the State Board of Elections.
Instead, it will focus solely on the argument that Dream Act legislation is an appropriations bill, thus disqualifying it from being subject to referendum.
“After reviewing and scrutinizing in greater detail, other than the Internet generated signatures and even those unqualified, [petitioners] would still have enough signatures to qualify the measure,” said Joseph Sandler of Sandler, Reiff, Young and Lamb, the lead attorney representing the plaintiffs. “Therefore the issue is no longer a ground for our suit. The suit will continue on the issue of referability — whether it’s an appropriation measure that cannot be referred to a referendum.”
Gov. Martin O’Malley signed the Maryland Dream Act into law in May granting in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants. Within days of the bill’s passage by the legislature, citizen activists led by MDPetitions.com launched a petition campaign to bring the new law to referendum.
Casa de Maryland, an immigrant support group, along with eight plaintiffs including two illegal immigrants, sued the state shortly after the State Board of Elections certified twice as many petition signatures required to place the new law on the November 2012 general election ballot.
The legal team representing MDPetitions.com said they are cautiously optimistic that the courts will rule in their favor.
“On its face, this is not an appropriations bill,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. “We’re confident the law is on our side. The voters can fairly expect they’re going to have a say on this next November.”
The Court of Appeals has yet to issue an opinion in a similar 2010 lawsuit that could affect the decision. In the case brought by Citizens Against Slots at The Mall, the state’s highest court overturned a lower court ruling that disqualified the slots law from appearing as a referendum because it was deemed an appropriation.
Sandler said the case may have little bearing on the in-state tuition referendum case, because the argument is different.
In the slots lawsuit, “the issue was whether the zoning measure that permitted the slots facility to be put near an Anne Arundel mall was an integral part of an appropriations measure so that it itself could not be subject to referendum,” Sandler said. “Our argument is different. We’re not saying this is an integral part of some package. We’re saying, as the Maryland Department of Legislative Services found in its fiscal note of the bill, this is a law mandating appropriations. That being said, there hasn’t been a lot of guidance from the court over the years on this, so it is a tricky issue.”
According to the state constitution, an opinion is supposed to be issued within 90 days of a court ruling, but a spokesperson from the Maryland Judiciary said the Court of Appeals has historically interpreted the requirement as a guideline.
“No opinion has been filed yet,” said judiciary spokeswoman Angelita Plemmer. “[The court] cannot predict when that will happen.”
According to Assistant Attorney General Jeff Darsie, who represents the state Board of Elections, a hearing is scheduled in the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court with Judge Ronald Silkworth at the end of January. Silkworth is the same judge whose decision was overturned in the slots lawsuit.