WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether jurisdictions can require a voter super-majority for passing or rescinding bond issues.
Six residents of Darien, Conn., are seeking a ruling in a dispute over the town's referendum procedure for reversing approval of a $2 million bond issue. Should the court decide to hear the case -- an announcement is likely this fall -- the activists expect the ruling to have wide implications.
"Obviously, if we're successful in getting the Supreme Court to take the case, its decision won't be limited to the town of Darien," said John C. Scully, counsel with the Washington Legal Foundation, a conservative group is representing the disgruntled residents.
The case, Joellyn Gray v. The Town of Darien, began in late 1988, when the town government voted to issue $2 million of bonds to finance construction of moderate-income rental housing. The move was opposed by Ms. Gray and other residents, who launched a successful petition drive to place the issue on a town-wide referendum.
The referendum, held on Feb. 7, 1989, resulted in 2,334 votes against the bond issue and 1,508 votes in favor. But to overturn actions of a town meeting, the town charter requires opponnets of the actions to constitute not only a majority of the votes in a referendum, but more than 25% of the town's registered voters as of the last municipal election.
So, despite garnering more than 60% of those voting, opponents of the bond issue found themselves 262 votes shy of the 25% threshold requirement. They also say city officials manipulated the referendum process to ensure that the referendum failed.
Opponents argued that in past elections, the town has always utilized three to six polling places, which were open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. But for the referendum to stop the bond issue, Darien made only one polling place available, and it was open only from noon to 8 p.m. In the town's previous general election, most of the votes were cast before noon.
Consequently, Ms. Gray and the other residents filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, alleging that Darien deprived them of their constitutional right, under the 14th Amendment, to equal protection of the laws. But the district court sided with the town, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concurred.
Now the plaintiffs are before the Supreme Court, urging the justices "to establish clear standards regarding when state and local governments are permitted to place restrictions on the concept of majority rule, and the extent to which they may impose those restrictions in some types of elections and not in others," according to their Supreme Court petition for review.
Mr. Scully of the Washington Legal Foundation said there are "numerous circumstances" nationally where local officials "use the power of government to maintain the status quo despite the wishes of the people. Representative government so often now is really a government of cliques and factions."
No bonds have actually been issued for the housing project, though $1.850 million of notes are outstanding, according to Darien finance official. The notes, which mature next May, were floated to finance the purchase of land for the project. The official said the housing project currently is in limbo, but if construction begins, the town will have to issue bonds, likely with 15-year maturities.
"We didn't want to have permanent financing until the building part was taken care of," the official said. "That still hasn't been resolved."