History of I&R in Mississippi

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The History of Initiative and Referendum in Mississippi began in 1912 when agitation for I&R achieved partial success for the first time, the peak year for I&R success nationwide.

Establishing I&R

Mississippi voters approved an I&R amendment by a nearly two to one margin, but the measure failed because of the state's requirement that a "supermajority" of all votes cast in the election, rather than a simple majority of votes on the I&R question, ratify it. This was the same requirement that defeated Minnesota's I&R amendment in three elections.

In Mississippi, after the initial defeat, I&R supporters led by State Representatives N. A. Mott of Yazoo City and Frank Burkitt of Oklahoma succeeded in pushing their proposal through the legislature a second time, and it was on the ballot again in 1914. This time it passed by a margin of more than two to one, though it barely passed the supermajority requirement.

The loss of I&R

In 1916, voters successfully petitioned to refer a bill passed by the legislature appointing a certain Z. A. Brantley to the office of game and fish commissioner, and then rejected the law by popular vote. Brantley took the case to court, charging that the I&R amendment was not valid. On March 26, 1917, the state supreme court upheld the referendum and the I&R process (State v. Brantley, 113 Miss. 786, 74 South, 662, Ann. Cas. 1917E, 723). An elated Assistant Attorney General Lamar F. Easterling, who defended the I&R process in the case, wrote the following day that the decision "settles the matter finally in this state."

Easterling's assessment proved premature. Five years later, a citizen group backing an initiative to change the salary of the state revenue agent turned in enough petition signatures to qualify the measure for the November 1922 ballot. Stokes v. Robertson, the revenue agent, went to court to keep it off the ballot, again attacking the validity of the I&R amendment.

The state supreme court, reversing its 1917 judgment, held that initiatives or referenda on statutes are one thing, but initiative constitutional amendments are another, and thus the constitutional initiative power should have been approved in 1914 in a separate amendment. Because it was not, the entire I&R provision was held unconstitutional. The court abolished the people's right to self-government by I&R, finding that: "The Constitution is the product of the people in their sovereign capacity. It was intended primarily to secure the rights of the people against the encroachments of the legislative branch of the government" (Power v. Robertson, 130 Miss. 188, 93 So. 769). In effect, the court said that it had to destroy the people's rights to self-government in order to save them. The legislature could have remedied the situation by approving two new amendments, one covering statutory, and the other constitutional, initiatives. However, it took no such action.

Winning I&R back

The issue lay dormant for over half a century, until 1977 when Upton Sisson of Gulfport took up the cause of I&R. Sisson, who served as state representative from 1956 to 1960, was a civil rights attorney who had argued one of the landmark "one man, one vote" reapportionment cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. At age 70 and in failing health, Sisson returned to the legislature to lobby for I&R.

Although unsuccessful, his efforts sparked enough interest in the subject that State Attorney General Bill Allain, running for governor in 1983, pledged to work for passage of an I&R amendment if elected. Allain won, but he was unable to fulfill his pledge.

However, the power of initiative and referenda was eventually restored to the citizens of Mississippi by the passage of Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 616 during the 1992 regular session. Initiative and referenda had been a widely discussed campaign issue in the 1991 fall elections. Its eventual passage in the 1992 regular session of the legislature was widely hailed as a progressive reform of government. It was approved by an astounding 70% of the popular vote in the 1992 fall elections – making Mississippi the last state to adopt the statewide initiative process.

However, the initiative process that was established in the state is one of the most difficult in the country. Since 1992, only two statewide initiatives have made it to the ballot – both to establish term limits – and both were defeated.

Acknowledgments

This article is significantly based on an article[1] published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, and is used with their permission. Their article, in turn, relies on research in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.[2]

References

  1. History of Mississippi's initiative
  2. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991