AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of a marijuana legalization ballot initiative disqualified by Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap told a judge Wednesday that the decision relied on an “unconstitutionally vague” legal interpretation.

The court battle will decide the fate of a question that would make Maine the fifth state to legalize marijuana, and it revolves around more than 17,000 signatures notarized by Stavros Mendros, who’s at the center of another appeal over a failed York County casino question.

Advocates submitted more than 99,000 signatures to get the question on the 2016 Maine ballot — more than the required 61,123 valid signatures from voters. But in March, Dunlap threw out nearly 48,000 signatures for many reasons.

The appeal hinges on petition signatures notarized by Mendros. Petition circulators take an oath that says they personally witnessed all petition signatures, and a notary’s signature indicates that.

Dunlap’s office tossed all petitions notarized by Mendros after saying the signatures didn’t match his on-file signature and because it couldn’t be determined he witnessed them. The office does not have handwriting experts.

Portland attorney Scott Anderson, who represented legalization backers, including the Marijuana Policy Project, rejected that, telling Maine Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy that Dunlap lacked evidence to support invalidating the petitions Mendros notarized and that Dunlap had interpreted the law in an “unconstitutionally vague” way.

Anderson said the ruling was an overbroad interpretation of a 2009 state law requiring notaries to sign documents “in the same form” as their signature on file and that there was “natural variability” in the signatures. “Form” isn’t defined, but he said it should be interpreted narrowly.

“We’ve all looked at them, and that conclusion is not supported by the evidence unless the secretary of state believes that he has unlimited authority to make this determination himself,” Anderson said. “That cannot be the law.”

However, Assistant Maine Attorney General Phyllis Gardiner said Dunlap, relying on “competent evidence” without time or a requirement for a longer investigation, “couldn’t determine if that oath was properly administered.”

“That may be unfortunate, but that’s what the petitioners presented to the secretary of state for him to decide,” Gardiner said.

Mendros, a former Republican legislator from Lewiston who runs Olympic Consulting, is perhaps the top player in Maine’s signature-gathering industry, but he has a 2007 misdemeanor conviction for not being in the presence of people he administered oaths to in another campaign.

He also worked for a group funded by the sister of Las Vegas developer Shawn Scott, who would get the license to a York County casino under a proposed 2016 referendum question that also was disqualified by Dunlap’s office, which invalidated more than half of the signatures over similar issues.

That group also has appealed Dunlap’s decision, but there won’t be an oral argument, Gardiner said Wednesday. The courts must issue a ruling in both cases by April 11.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...