Man’s Ban From AZ Senate Unconstitutional

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce violated a labor leader’s First Amendment rights by removing and barring him from the state Senate building, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     The Republican senator – known for authoring severe immigration laws in the state, including one statute prohibiting bail and pretrial release for undocumented immigrants – had Salvador Reza thrown off the premises for allegedly disrupting a hearing.
     Reza is a member of Tonatierra, a community development organization that seeks to protect the rights of migrant workers and their families. He and numerous other supporters of the organization attended a February 2011 legislative hearing concerning state immigration law, viewing the debate via broadcast in one of the Senate building’s overflow rooms.
     Although the group was vocal and applauded frequently during the hearing, witnesses – including Democratic Sen. Steve Gallardo – claim that they never saw Reza or any Tonatierra supporter engage in disruptive or disrespectful behavior.
     But Pearce claimed the noise interfered with Senate business and that Reza responded flippantly when police officers asked the group to quiet down.
     After the hearing, Pearce had Reza identified and ordered him barred from the building. Two days later, Reza tried to enter the building for a meeting with Gallardo to discuss obtaining a permit for future protests but was arrested and held for about five hours at the Maricopa County Jail.
     Reza sued Pearce and the officers in June 2011, claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights. A federal judge found for Pearce, concluding that he was protected by qualified immunity, but three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision on Tuesday.
     In the panel’s 27-page opinion, Circuit Judge Milan Smith wrote that Pearce’s complete ban of Reza from the building “exceeds the bounds of reasonableness as a response to a single act of disruption.”
     Smith also wrote that the effect of Pearce’s ban was to exclude Reza not just from all future hearings relating to the immigration law at issue but from all future hearings on any subject, which violated his clearly established constitutional rights.
     And Pearce’s argument that Reza’s removal was in the interest of public safety was not persuasive, Smith said, because “Reza was a threat based only on the tense environment that existed in Arizona at the time of the protest.”
     The panel upheld the police officers’ right to qualified immunity, since Pearce’s order was “facially valid” in the situation’s context and could only be challenged in a lawsuit against Pearce, not against the officers.
     Circuit Judge Clifford Wallace dissented from the majority opinion, writing that he would affirm the federal judge’s ruling.
     The majority opinion “fails to recognize the reasonableness of Sen. Pearce’s actions given the circumstances he faced,” he wrote.
     “The majority’s holding continues our unfortunate ignoring of the Supreme Court’s repeated caution to avoid defining clearly established law at a high level of generality,” he added.
     Neither side could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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