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What is a Citizen Petition?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 16, 2024
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A citizen petition is a formal document that requests that a government agency or private business change, amend, or retain the policy of concern to the petitioner(s). This process is an opportunity for an individual or a group to make its views about an issue known. Laws may even be enacted or repealed via citizen petition. While a legal petition is used in specific circumstances such as a request that a court of law take action, a citizen petition has a broader application because anyone can file one or comment on one that has been filed.

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States provides for the right of citizens to petition. Citizens have the right to appeal the government or a private business when they feel strongly about a policy or a law that directly affects them. Also guaranteed in this amendment is the right to lobby legislative bodies and to gather signatures in support of a petition or a cause. Many nations that have adopted the English legal system also preserve this right to petition that dates historically back to the Magna Carta.

Most citizen petitions begin when one person or an organization identifies an issue that merits attention. There may be a need for a new law, a change in existing policy, or a desire to impede its revocation. The concerned parties draft a petition that details the issue as they view it and their reasoning. The petition can then be circulated among a larger group of people who can sign it if they support the request.

A common requirement is that a minimum number of people must sign a citizen petition in support of its contents. Once enough people have signed, the petition will be accepted. The minimum number of signatures varies wildly, and in some cases petitions must be filed within a specific time frame. Anyone interested in filling a citizen petition should be familiar with any applicable requirements prior to beginning the process.

Depending on the nature of the request, if a citizen petition is accepted, the voting public will get a chance to consider the issue as a ballot initiative. The petition can be formally adopted if a majority of voters approve it. Laws can be enacted or repealed in this manner at the local and state levels, although some states in America and some countries do not accept citizen petitions with these types of requests. Private businesses will not require a vote but may voluntarily adopt a petition that is well supported.

Filing a citizen petition is an accessible method for addressing a needed or unwanted change. It is a common activity in urban areas and university campuses where a large population represents a pool of potential supporters. A citizen petition allows one person or a small group to affect the larger political process in a significant way.

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