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Lots of legal action in 2013, but lower profile at U.S. Supreme Court

justice-court-620Courts in 2013 decided an Arizona law requiring voters prove citizenship doesn’t apply to federal registration forms, and the state has to account for inflation when funding public schools.  Both issues promise to linger beyond the New Year.

But the gavel fell with finality on a few of Arizona’s 2013 political conflicts, such as a federal court’s ruling that found two 2011 anti-union bills unconstitutional and the state Supreme Court prohibiting the use of revenues from the state trust lands to operate the State Land Department.

The Attorney General’s Office also kept busy trying to prevent illegal immigrants from paying the more affordable in-state tuition, and defending the state from allegations its prison health care is deficient.

U.S. Supreme Court

Arizona kept a lower profile in 2013 at the nation’s high court than in 2012, when the court decided to gut the state’s most prominent immigration policy, SB1070.

But one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions on an Arizona case for 2013 also involved immigration.

The court forbid Arizona from requiring proof of citizenship for voters using federal registration forms, but let stand the requirement for state forms. The ruling prompted Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne to issue a formal opinion that the state can implement a dual-registration system in which voters who registered with the federal forms without proving citizenship will be limited to just federal elections.

Horne and Secretary of State Ken Bennett also joined Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in asking a U.S. District Court in Kansas to force the federal Elections Assistance Commission to put the proof-of-citizenship requirement on federal voter registration forms for their respective states.

On Dec. 13, Judge Eric Melgren of U.S. District Court in Kansas turned the case over to the elections commission to decide by Jan. 17. The EAC currently has no commissioners. But the U.S. Department of Justice contends that the agency can act even in the absence of commissioners, according to Melgren’s order.

The state also appealed a 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals ruling that found a 2012 law banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy unconstitutional. Horne and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery argued in briefs to the high court that Arizona lawmakers used scientific evidence to find that unborn babies feel pain and abortion puts the health of mothers at risk.

Lawyers for doctors opposing the law argued that a fetus is not viable at 20 weeks and the law has been long settled that the state can’t interfere in a woman’s ability to decide on an abortion before viability, or about 24 weeks. The court has not decided whether to accept the case, but a ruling in favor of Arizona would also uphold similar laws in several other states and open the doors for even more such laws and an eventual assault on Roe v. Wade.

Arizona Supreme Court

One of the more anticipated rulings came Sept. 26 when the state’s highest court sided with schools, ruling that the Legislature violated the Voter Protection Act by not funding inflation for K-12 education three years ago.

The court rejected the Attorney General’s argument that voters cannot restrict the discretion of future Legislatures without constitutional approval. The ruling is not the last word on the issue, however.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Maricopa County Superior Court for a judgment in favor of schools, but the question remains on reimbursement for the unfunded years.

The court also sided against the Legislature in concluding that it cannot divert trust land funds, which mostly benefit education. The decision struck down a 2009 law that allowed the Land Department to deposit up to 10 percent of proceeds from the trust lands, into a management fund.

The court also weighed in on HB2600, a 2013 law that increased the minimum number of nominees for the governor to appoint to the bench.

The court concluded the law “directly conflicts” with the merit selection provisions in the Constitution.

Lawsuits

Horne started threatening Maricopa County Community College District in 2012 with a lawsuit if the district continued its policy of offering in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.

He made it a promise on June 25, alleging the district was violating state law that prohibits colleges and universities from offering in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and a federal law that prohibits illegal immigrants from receiving any state or public benefit.

The district accepts work permits from students who got them through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to prove their “legal presence” in the U.S., one of the criteria for establishing residency.  The district isn’t backing down in court.

Judge Arthur Anderson told attorneys in November he wants to resolve the case by spring and he doesn’t expect there to be a trial.

The lawsuit with one of the most significant court rulings for the state in 2013 will also have one of the most significant rulings in 2014.

Judge Neil V. Wake of U.S. District Court in Phoenix decided in March that the Arizona Department of Corrections shows indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners and that systemic problems expose all prisoners to substantial risk of serious harm. He certified a lawsuit alleging a substandard medical system as a class action, allowing the roughly 33,000 state prisoners in as parties.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the state’s appeal of Wake’s decision in November. A ruling in favor of the state would strip away the class certification and leave just 13 prisoners and their individual claims, but a ruling upholding the certification would likely mean many more years of litigation.

A key ruling related to workplace issues occurred in April.   The United Food and Commercial Workers and the Arizona Education Association convinced Judge Murray Snow of U.S. District Court to keep SB1365 from taking effect and void most of SB1363, both of which were passed in 2011. SB1365 required employees to give their consent before an employer could deduct money from their paychecks for “political purposes.” SB1363 limited picketing by prohibiting unruly picketers and lowered the standard for defaming an employer. The unions are now asking for $711,000 in attorney’s fees.

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