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Eye On Boise

Idaho Supreme Court finds Otter instant racing veto invalid

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that Gov. Butch Otter's belated attempt to veto legislation banning slot machine-like "instant racing" terminals in Idaho was invalid, because it came after the Idaho Constitution's required five-day deadline. That means the gambling machines are now illegal in Idaho; you can read the court's decision here.

"This Court has insisted upon strict adherence to the procedures outlined in our Constitution for enacting laws and in exercising the veto power," Justice Roger Burdick wrote in the unanimous decision. "Indeed, we have stated that the provisions are mandatory and that it is the imperative duty of the Legislature, and in this case, the executive as well, to obey them." Justice Daniel Eismann added in a specially concurring opinion that he found Secretary of State Lawerence Denney's defense in the case "frivolous" and "disingenuous;" Justice Warren Jones joined in Eismann's concurrence. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe, which filed the lawsuit, had requested Denney to certify the bill as a law, contending the belated veto was invalid; he refused, saying he didn't believe he had that power unless either the Senate or the court ordered him. Today's court decision orders him to do that.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe issued this statement from tribal Chairman Chief Allan:

“We are very pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling today. This pivotal decision reaffirms that even Idaho’s highest elected officials must follow the Constitution. It’s really too bad that a lawsuit was necessary to confirm this, but we are extremely happy with the result. More importantly, this is a big win for the Idaho Legislature because the Court is upholding a law that was passed by a supermajority of both the Idaho Senate and the House of Representatives. This is exactly why our government has checks and balances in place."  

John Sheldon, president of Treasure Valley Racing, which operates the machines at Les Bois Park near Boise, issued this statement:

"Treasure Valley Racing is obviously extremely disappointed in the Court’s ruling. It comes on the heels of a 32-day live race schedule at Les Bois Park that would not have occurred without the infusion that historical horse racing brings to this industry. A season that disbursed nearly $2 million in purses to horsemen, employed 280 Idahoans, and contributed $2.67 million in taxes. We are currently reviewing all of our options and assessing the significant impact that complying with the Court’s order will have on the immediate and long-term future of Les Bois Park."

The state and the three companies that operate the gambling terminals in Idaho argued that because the Senate treated the governor's veto as if it were valid, and took an unsuccessful veto override vote - it drew a majority, but not the two-thirds required for an override - that meant the veto was valid. The justices disagreed. "The duty of supporting the constitutional provisions is imposed upon all public officers by the solemn obligations of the official oath, which obligations cannot be discharged by disobeying, ignoring, and setting at naught the plain provisions of the Constitution," the justices wrote. Quoting an earlier decision, they wrote, "If either house can disregard one plain provision of the Constitution, then it may disregard all of its provisions, and the Constitution, instead of being the fundamental law of the land, is a mere sham, an  idle mockery, a nullity."

The state and the racing companies also argued that separation of powers should bar the court from telling the Senate or the governor how to interpret the attempted veto; again, the justices disagreed. "Each of the branches of government serves as a check against the power of the others to ensure that each branch is acting within the scope of its authority and consistent with the Constitution," Burdick wrote. "Thus, it is the this Court's duty to intervene to prevent the governor and the Senate from circumventing the Constitution and manipulating the veto power in this case."

Otter issued this statement:

“I am disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision. I vetoed the bill within the time allowed under the Constitution. As for the time of its return, I gave Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill my word that he could be the first to inform his colleagues of my veto, instead of having them learn of it through press reports. Unfortunately the Senate already was adjourned for the long Easter weekend. I stand by my word as well as my earlier decision to veto this legislation. It is clear the Senate took up my veto and voted to uphold it. While I disagree with today’s ruling, I will continue working toward a solution that ensures a viable live horse racing industry in Idaho."

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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