The Supreme Judicial Court today ordered the state to eliminate questions from the November ballot that, if passed, would have stripped Uber, Lyft and food-delivery drivers of their protections under state employment laws by making them "independent contractors" - and also shielded ride-share companies from lawsuits.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said two ballot-question petitions with similar language - which were approved by Attorney General Maura Healey's office - violate a state constitutional requirement that ballot questions only apply to one thing at a time, because worker relationships with a company have nothing to do with lawsuits over injuries and damage possibly linked to the company.
The court said the limitation is in place to keep voters from getting confused by complex questions that seem to do one thing, but actually wind up doing another. The way proponents basically snuck the lawsuit limitations in language buried at the bottom of the questions would only lead to more confusion, the court said. Proponents have spent heavily on TV ads featuring ride-share drivers talking about how much they want to keep setting their own hours and urging voters to help them fend off unspecified evil forces that want to take away that "right."
Petitions that bury separate policy decisions in obscure language heighten concerns that voters will be confused, misled, and deprived of a meaningful choice -- the very concerns that underlie art. 48's related subjects requirement. Voters are not only unable to separate one policy decision from another; they may not even be aware they are making the second, unrelated policy decision. When even lawyers and judges cannot be sure of the meaning of the contested provisions, it would be unfaithful to art. 48's design to allow the petition to be presented to the voters, with all the attendant risks that voters will be confused and misled.
In sum, as these petitions reasonably appear to seek to limit network companies' liability for torts committed by app- based drivers, by barring courts hearing tort suits from treating network companies as employers of app-based drivers and drivers as employees or agents of network companies, and this is a separate, significant policy decision that has been obscured by murky language, we conclude that the petitions violate the relatedness requirement of art. 48.