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Elections to move forward as judge okays at-large districts for community college board

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A judge ruled that a law creating two new at-large seats on the Maricopa County Community College District governing board is constitutional and will allow elections for those seats to move forward.

Opponents of the 2010 law argued that it violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on special legislation because it was written to affect only Maricopa County. But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner said it was permissible for the Legislature to write a law that only applies to a “class of one” because the county’s massive size makes it unique.

“It is not irrational for the Legislature to decide that the unique character of different counties warrants different types of boards,” Warner wrote in his March 25 ruling.

Attorney Paul Eckstein, who represents a group of elected officials, education officials and community activists who sued to block the law’s implementation, said an appeal is likely.

The MCCCD board has five members who are elected to represent districts, which correspond to the five districts represented on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. In 2010, the Legislature passed HB2261, which requires counties with populations of at least 3 million people to add two at-large seats to their community college boards.

The Legislature decided to delay the new law until the 2012 election, and it was put on hold again when the U.S. Department of Justice declined to approve it. But the U.S. Supreme Court last year struck down a requirement in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring some jurisdictions to receive federal “preclearance” for election and voting law changes. That allowed HB2261 to go into effect.

Opponents filed suit in December, arguing that HB2261 was special legislation and was therefore unconstitutional.

The courts use a three-part test to determine whether a law is special legislation:
-The classification must be rationally related to a legitimate government objective.
-The classification must be legitimate and encompass all members of the designated class.
-The class must be elastic, allowing members to move in and out of it.

Warner said even though the law created a class of one – Maricopa County is the only county in Arizona that comes close to having 3 million people –it did not qualify as special legislation. The judge said it is rational for the Legislature to conclude that a county of Maricopa’s size needs additional board members, and that the seats should be elected at large to avoid new redistricting.

“The state urges that, due to the dramatic difference in size between Maricopa and other counties, there is a need for more board members both because of the board’s workload and to make the board more responsive to the general public,” Warner wrote. “The law accommodates the need for more board members while preserving the economy that results from having precincts that are the same as supervisorial districts.”

At least two candidates, lobbyist Mario Diaz and Peoria Unified School District board member Tracy Livingston, have filed to run for the seat. Diaz was pleased with the ruling.

“I’m grateful to Judge Warner and to his decision today to allow democracy to be increased for Maricopa County taxpayers,” Diaz said.

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