Lawsuit to Protect Direct Democracy During Pandemic Dismissed by Court


Tish O’Dell
Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund
Community Organizer

Bill Lyons
Columbus Bill of Rights

Petitioners for a fracking industry ban and Rights of Nature law sought relief from Columbus petition law, protection for right to safely gather signatures.

COLUMBUS, OH: A lawsuit demanding the temporary suspension of a unique Columbus City Charter petition rule was dismissed by the U.S.  District Court for Southern Ohio on April 14, 2021. Petitioners seeking to ban harms from the fracking industry within Ohio’s capital city and surrounding watershed filed the lawsuit in June 2020, arguing a June 2020 deadline on signature gathering was unconstitutional during the Covid-19 pandemic and should be extended. The deadline effectively killed ballot access for the initiative, according to the lawsuit. The rule places a one-year timeline on ballot initiative petition gathering. The group has met these requirements in the past, and had it not been for state shutdown orders, were in position to meet the deadline.

The proposed Columbus Community Bill of Rights (CCBOR) city charter amendment would assert the right of people and ecosystems to “clean water, air, and soil, and to be free from activities that would violate this right.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, petitioners were forced to suspend their petition campaign in March 2020. They had secured almost 9,000 signatures, and needed 9,870 valid signatures. 

In the lawsuit, written by CELDF attorneys, the petitioners show that other Ohio government departments have taken action to safeguard public health by extending deadlines for license renewals, tax filings, etc. during the unprecedented pandemic.

The city argued that “waiving the one-year deadline would defeat the city’s important legitimate and compelling interests.” The court agreed citing “the need to avoid overcrowded ballots, decreasing fraud and to ensure timely review by both election officials and the judiciary.” 

“What the 6th Circuit has revealed yet again is that real democracy by the people will not find justice in the courts. Justice is reserved for the elite 1% and corporate ‘persons’ in Ohio,” stated Tish O’Dell, CELDF Organizer.

“Rather than rewarding the responsible, rational, caring behavior of our group to suspend our in-person signature gathering during the pandemic, the city and the court have acted punitively against us, and in so doing have said it is better to act irresponsibly and carelessly regarding the public’s health in order to preserve procedure,” stated Bill Lyons of the community group.

“CCBOR volunteers followed CDC guidelines to stay out of crowds and maintain 6 feet distance in order to prevent spreading or becoming infected with the deadly COVID-19 virus. Nearly 19,000 Ohioans have died. Rather than support and stand for Columbus voters’ right to home rule and the Columbus Community Bill of Rights initiative that protects our drinking water from radioactive frack waste dumping in our watershed, they have used every tactic in the book to block our citizen initiative from the ballot. This is corruption at the core!” reacted Carolyn Harding, one of the group’s original organizers.

“The Columbus City Council was wary enough of the pandemic to move to online public meetings, and continues to meet virtually now. It’s too bad that they care so little for the health of people that they think we relinquish our right to petition unless we go out and get within arm’s length of hundreds or thousands of strangers to collect signatures.” – Charlotte Owens, Petitioner

“Wake up, Ohioans. Our laws are designed to ensure the failure of citizen initiatives. That is why immensely popular proposals that manage to break through the blockades inevitably face last minute legal obstructions. By backing nonsensical pop-up laws, Ohio’s judges show their hand. They, too, are eager to keep citizen initiatives off the ballot.” – Sandy Bolzenius, Petitioner.

Contact tish@celdf.org or simon@celdf.org for a copy of the lawsuit and 

Further information:


Full text of the Columbus Community Bill of Rights petition: https://columbusbillofrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Columbus-Charter

Read Columbus Community Bill of Rights’ response brief for why the court should hear their case: http://u.pc.cd/vPQ


About CELDF — Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) is helping build a decolonial movement for Community Rights and the Rights of Nature to advance democratic, economic, social, and environmental rights – building upward from the grassroots to the state, federal, and international levels.

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

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