Commentary: Edmondson should free “The Oklahoma Three”
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Published: 14-Dec-2008

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published 14-Dec-2008

In November, the Citizens in Charge Foundation joined the Sam Adams Alliance (Free Speech Project) to sponsor a meeting at the Cox Convention Center focused on the initiative process in Oklahoma and the nation.

Sessions were packed out, held in a meeting room filled to capacity. It was a thrill to see intelligent and informed citizens grappling with the minutiae of legal provisions that govern the politics of direct democracy in Oklahoma and other states.

Panelists focused on technical issues such as signature-gathering requirements, judicial review of ballot initiatives pre- and post-election, “time and place” restrictions on the petitions, and other important issues. Often discussion turned to the initiative as an example of pure political speech, and the role and risks of direct democratic mechanisms in a constitutional Republic.

But much discussion centered on a shocking criminal prosecution Attorney General Drew Edmondson has aimed at Paul Jacob, formerly of U.S. Term Limits and now head of Citizens in Charge, Rick Carpenter of Oklahomans in Action and Susan Johnson of National Voter Outreach, an initiative petition-gathering firm.

Carpenter ran the 2005 campaign for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). Jacob and Johnson helped. Johnson's firm used professional petitioners who established state residency in a manner consistent with past initiative drives (including the anti-cock fighting measure). Jacob, Johnson, Carpenter and their allies even consulted with state officials to keep operations within existing guidelines.

After petitioning was completed, Edmondson's office asserted it was all a sham and brought criminal prosecutions against the three. When they were arraigned last year, Jacob and his allies were handcuffed. If convicted in a trial that began in November, Jacob could face 10 years in prison and up to a $25,000 fine.

The prosecution and handcuffing have drawn national condemnation. Additionally, most courts of appeal thus far have found residency requirements legally deficient. Ultimately, that is a matter likely to be resolved by the Supreme Court. Regardless, though, it seems clear it is more appropriately a civil issue, rather than a criminal one.

Edmondson's prosecution of these three is a stain on Oklahoma's reputation, and has already had a chilling effect on the vigorous speech the initiative process is supposed to encourage and protect. Edmondson initially defended his prosecutions, but has not had much to say lately.

For a prosecutor to admit error in such a matter would not be a sign of weakness, but of strength, maturity and wisdom. Partisan issues and a likely 2010 gubernatorial campaign aside, Edmondson has redeeming qualities. This prosecution is not one of them.

Edmondson has done some controversial things, and has occasionally acted unwisely, including in this matter. I encourage him to withdraw prosecution of the Oklahoma Three, as they are now known. Agree with them, or not, these are political activists, not criminals.  My direct appeal to Drew is simply this: to restore confidence in the fairness and professionalism of your office, Free Paul Jacob.

Note: This essay is also in this month’s issue of Perspective, the magazine of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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