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Judge declines to block Arizona AG threat to prosecute elections chief over system takedown

The judge found Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs' claims she would be harmed if the attorney general made good on the perceived threats "mere speculation."

PHOENIX (CN) — A Maricopa County judge rejected a motion Friday that would have blocked state Attorney General Mark Brnovich from pursuing criminal action against Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs over her plans to take a candidate signature-gathering system offline for maintenance.

Judge Joan Sinclair denied the motion for a preliminary injunction on narrow grounds after a day of consideration following oral arguments Wednesday.

At issue is the length of time — and timing — of the takedown of E-qual, ahead of the candidate finalization deadline of April 4. The four-week takedown would allow a remapping to align voters with newly drawn congressional and legislative districts but would shave nearly a month off petition time for some political candidates.

Brnovich's office told Sinclair Wednesday that the remapping was unnecessary, citing recent legislation addressing mapping concerns.

"The Legislature passed a statute supported by the secretary last year that allows them to obtain signatures from folks either in the old legislative congressional district or the new congressional legislative district," said Deputy Solicitor General Michael Catlett said. "There's no dispute by anyone that the current system as it's currently running is somehow inconsistent with the law."

Hobbs planned to take the system offline starting March 11 to streamline electoral efforts for Coconino and Yavapai county recorders holding elections in May. The proposed remapping would alleviate any issues in a signature re-assigning post-Election Day.

"That will be more litigation challenging nomination petitions because there will be petitions and signers that are not qualified to sign," Hobbs' attorney Roopali Desai of Coppersmith Brockelman told Sinclair on Wednesday. 

The lawsuit comes after Hobbs' office received a letter from Brnovich claiming it was her statutory duty to maintain the system and advising her of the potential consequences of failing to do so.

Hobbs viewed this letter as a threat of possible prosecution, her complaint says, that would grossly damage her and her livelihood.

"She didn't even respond to that letter," Catlett said. "Instead, she hauled off to court, and now we're here where we are. Her only claim under the statute not that it's unconstitutional. Not that it's an unlawful statute."

Sinclair found Friday that while the secretary clearly viewed Brnovich’s letter as a threat, it "did not promise or guarantee prosecution and thus does not create a controversy properly before the court."

The findings also confirmed the attorney general is the chief enforcement officer in any election for state office. 

“It is simply unknown if action taken in the future by the AG would be lawful or not,” Sinclair said. “Any ruling by the court would be mere speculation. “

The suit comes in a political timeline that sees both plaintiff and defendant running for high-profile positions.

Hobbs is running for Arizona governor and is a front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Brnovich, a Republican, is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied for Mark Kelly.

"If Attorney General Brnovich wishes to operate and administer elections, perhaps instead of running for the U.S. Senate, he should run to be the county recorder," Desai said Wednesday. "He does not understand county elections administration. He does not understand how E-qual works."

Brnovich has previously and is currently investigating claims of voter fraud tied to the 2020 presidential election. His office has charged individuals with voter fraud recently in response to the state Senate's audit findings.

Allegations of ballot chain of custody violations are still being investigated, according to state Senator Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu.

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