Just Thinking

Court Doesn’t Hedge in Ruling for IRC — And Itself

by Richard Gilman

The Arizona Supreme Court struck blows on behalf of the state’s redistricting commission, as well as on behalf of its own powers, with a unanimous and unequivocal ruling in the controversial case that pitted the governor against the commission chairperson.

Gov. Jan Brewer, acting with the concurrence of two-thirds of the state Senate, ousted the chairperson, Colleen Coyle Mathis, last fall.  Brewer contended the courts had no say in the matter, but Mathis was reinstated by the Supreme Court soon after a one-hour hearing in November.

The commission went on to complete the task of drawing up new districts for Congress and the Legislature in December.

The court asserted in the opinion handed down Friday that:

  • The court had jurisdiction in the case and that it, not the governor, was the final arbiter of the state constitution.
  • The provisions for which Mathis was canned, “substantial neglect” of duties and “gross misconduct” in office, have legal meaning that the governor cannot define any way she pleases.
  • Members of independent boards such as the Independent Redistricting Commission need to have some legal recourse if their independence is to be protected.

The case became a constitutional showdown when the attorneys for the governor and the state Senate argued that the wording in the constitutional amendment creating the commission essentially allowed the governor carte blanche in cashiering a commission member, even if the offense was so minor as wearing a purple dress when the governor doesn’t like purple.  The attorneys insisted such decisions were subject to review only by the Senate, and not by the courts.

The court was having none of it, striking down all aspects of the governor’s argument.  Underscoring the unanimity of the court, the decision was written by A. John Pelander, one of the two justices appointed by Brewer.

The opinion stated, “Ratification by one political branch of an action taken by another does not necessarily immunize the action from judicial review.  To conclude otherwise would deprive the judiciary of its authority, and indeed its obligation, to interpret and apply constitutional law.”

What’s more, the court concluded there was ample legal precedence for protecting boards established to be independent by not allowing
dismissal of its members without judicial review.

In this case, the court found that the governor’s reasons for dismissing Mathis did not meet the standards set out in the constitution.  She was accused of not complying with the open meetings law and failing to fully abide by one of the constitutional provisions for drawing the congressional map.

The court pointed out that the constitution requires only that commission meetings be open when a quorum is present.  And it said the proper avenue for contesting how the maps were drawn was not firing the commission chairperson but challenging the result through the courts, and that only after the maps had been finalized.

Neither accusation against Mathis, the court wrote, met the standards of substantial neglect of duties or gross misconduct.

The opinion defined substantial as a “categorical and egregious” failure.  It said gross misconduct required a “knowing and willful violation of a legal duty.”  The court found “no legal cause” for Mathis’s removal.

 

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