- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Casino supporters fought yesterday to get their proposal on the D.C. ballot, telling an appeals court that city election officials improperly threw out thousands of petition signatures.

Lawyer George Jones argued that the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics was wrong to toss out thousands of signatures on the grounds that circulators misrepresented the ballot initiative and wore T-shirts touting jobs and health care.

Mr. Jones told the D.C. Court of Appeals that the statements are considered political speech and are protected by the First Amendment. But he repeatedly was interrupted by questions from the three-judge panel.

Judge Theodore Newman wanted to know how many signatures were removed by officials because of fraud and how many were tossed over supposedly misleading statements.

Casino proponents submitted 56,000 signatures. But after the names were checked against voter rolls, 21,279 signatures remained.

Judge Newman said the court shouldn’t spend time analyzing the constitutional issue if the signatures thrown out for fraud put proponents below the required 17,599 valid signatures.

“If that carries you below the requisite threshold, you’re out of here. Game over. Show me why not,” Judge Newman said.

Mr. Jones promised those numbers and said he did not challenge the signatures rejected for fraud. That includes more than 6,200 tossed after some circulators admitted forging names from phone books.

The court is expected to rule this month. Supporters hope for a favorable decision in time to let voters decide in November on their plan to put 3,500 video-lottery terminals in a casino to be built near the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue NE. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and several members of the D.C. Council oppose the plan.

Judge Michael Farrell mentioned returning the case to the Board of Elections for a decision that disregards the issue of petition gatherers’ statements.

“I thought it went well,” said Ronald Drake, a lawyer who was among those to challenge the petitions. “It seemed the court is trying to avoid constitutional issues if it can be resolved on any other grounds. However, I believe if it comes to that, we will prevail.”

“On the First Amendment issue, I leave the courthouse feeling good,” said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sided with the casino proponents. “All three judges seemed to be in agreement that the T-shirts were not a valid issue for disqualification.”

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