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Monday, July 8, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Arizona appeals court partially blocks campaign finance law 

A provision preventing the Legislature from enforcing a voting law violates the separation of powers doctrine of the state constitution, a three-judge panel found.

PHOENIX (CN) — The Arizona Court of Appeals partially enjoined a voter-backed campaign spending law Thursday, ruling in favor of state lawmakers challenging its constitutionality.

Senate President Warren Petersen of Gilbert and House Speaker Ben Toma of Peoria, both Republicans, say the Voters Right to Know Act takes rulemaking authority away from the Legislature and over-delegates that power to Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, an agency of the executive branch.

The law, which requires political candidates to disclose the sources of donations exceeding $5,000 if they meet certain criteria, grants the commission broad power to implement requirements under section 16-974(A)(8), and prevents legislative bodies or officials from limiting or prohibiting enforcement actions taken by the commission under section 16-974(D).

In a Thursday evening opinion, a three-judge appeals panel sided with the legislative leaders on the latter section, enjoining it in part. 

“We conclude the Legislature has standing to challenge § 16- 974(D) insofar as it prevents the Legislature from limiting or prohibiting the commission’s rules or enforcement actions,” Judge Michael Catlett wrote in the opinion. “But the Legislature lacks standing to challenge § 16-974(A)(8).”

Toma and Petersen sued the state and the clean elections commission in August 2023, nearly nine months after voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 211, claiming violations of the separation of powers doctrine and the nondelegation doctrine.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy Ryan dismissed a motion for preliminary injunction in December and the plaintiffs appealed soon after. 

Though delegating rulemaking and enforcement to executive agencies is nothing new, the Legislature typically has power to alter or revoke that delegation. The plaintiffs say the statute strips the legislature of its power to do just that. 

The court agreed. 

“§ 16-974(D) would completely nullify any vote by the Legislature now or in the future if it resulted in a law prohibiting or limiting a commission rule or enforcement action,” Catlett wrote. “Thus, the Legislature, as an institution, has sustained a direct injury to its authority to make and amend laws.”

The state argued in the May appeal hearing that the plaintiffs must identify a specific law they were barred from passing to establish actual injury. But the appeals court disagreed, reasoning that the Legislature need not attempt to violate the law to prove injury to its power.

Clean Elections executive director Tom Collins told Courthouse News that the agency never intended to restrict the Legislature from passing laws applying to the commission. It interprets the statute to apply only to the Administrative Rules Oversight Committee, not the Legislature as a whole.

He said in a phone call that it’s unsurprising that the court reached such a conclusion given that it rejected Clean Elections’ interpretation. 

“As a practical matter, the principal provisions of Prop 211 with respect to the obligations it imposes remain intact, so in that sense, I think that is a successful defense of the measure,” he added.

Though the court took issue with the second challenged section 16-974(D), it found none in 16-974(A)(8).

The Legislature has broad discretion to delegate authority to the executive branch, and does so regularly, Catlett wrote. “The people made the delegation here, but ultimately that makes no difference. Like the Legislature, the people can enact laws that include broad — but again not unbounded — delegations to the executive branch.”

Catlett added that delegation of authority does not on its own nullify legislative power. Rather, the Legislature retains power to make laws pertaining to the delegation. The only thing stopping the Legislature from doing so is 16-974(D), which is why it is now enjoined from enforcement. 

The plaintiffs said in May that the provision could allow Clean Elections to act beyond its legal capacity, but Collins again said that was never the intent.

“We’ve never taken that section as saying the commission can do whatever it wants notwithstanding the legal framework from which it operates,” he said.

Catlett added that delegation of authority does not on its own nullify legislative power. Rather, the Legislature retains power to make laws pertaining to the delegation. The only thing stopping the Legislature from doing so is 16-974(D), which is why it's now enjoined from enforcement. 

The plaintiffs argued that because 16-974(D) is unconstitutional, the whole act must be stricken. But the court disagreed, choosing only to enjoin the specific section in compliance with the act’s severability clause. The court remanded the case back to the trial court only as to that specific section, reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the motion for preliminary injunction. 

Neither the plaintiffs nor the state have replied to requests for comment.

Follow @JournalistJoeAZ
Categories / Appeals, Courts, Elections, Regional, Uncategorized

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