By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Opponents of a campaign to reinstate Nebraska’s death penalty argued in a new lawsuit Monday that ballot language drafted by the attorney general’s office for the 2016 election is slanted in favor of death penalty supporters.
Nebraskans for Public Safety, which opposes capital punishment, asked a judge to declare that the wording is “unlawfully misleading” and must be changed. Last week, the group filed a lawsuit arguing that the measure is invalid because Gov. Pete Ricketts - who bankrolled a large part of the petition drive - wasn’t listed as a sponsor.
The ballot language submitted by Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson informs voters that retaining the repeal law would eliminate capital punishment and change the “maximum” penalty for first-degree murder to life in prison.
Death penalty opponents say the word “maximum” is misleading because it incorrectly implies that first-degree murder convicts could face a lesser sentence than life in prison. The lawsuit in Lancaster County District Court asks a judge to rule that the ballot’s title and explanatory statement are “unfairly slanted in favor of the referendum proponents.”
“Nebraskans have respectful differences of opinion on the death penalty,’’ said plaintiff Lyle Koenig, a death penalty opponent and private practice attorney in Beatrice. “However, I think we can agree that all voters deserve a fair explanation of what this vote is really about.”
A spokeswoman for Peterson issued a statement defending the ballot language and noting that it was taken from a legislative amendment written by the Judiciary Committee, which unanimously supported the repeal bill. Peterson supports the death penalty.
“The Attorney General’s office has complied with its statutory duty to provide clear, fair and impartial ballot language,” the statement said.
Lawmakers voted in May to abolish capital punishment, narrowly overriding Ricketts’ veto. Shortly after the vote, supporters of the punishment formed the group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty and launched a statewide petition drive to undo the repeal. Ricketts had given $200,000 to the effort as of July 31, making him the largest contributor.
Nebraskans for the Death Penalty announced in August that it had collected nearly 167,000 signatures - more than three times the minimum number needed to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot. Some counties are still verifying the signatures, but Secretary of State John Gale announced last week that petition circulators appear to have gathered enough signatures to suspend the repeal law until voters decide its fate.
The lawsuit names Peterson and Gale as defendants.
Spike Eickholt, an attorney for Nebraskans for Public Safety, said the lawsuit filed Monday is intended to ensure that the language is neutral if the issue makes it to the 2016 ballot. Death penalty opponents and scholars have argued that support for the punishment can be swayed by how the question is presented to the public.
“The campaign will continue to educate Nebraska voters about why the death penalty is broken beyond repair and belongs in our past,” Eickholt said in a statement.