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AZ Supreme Court: Recall laws meant to protect public, not politicians

Arizona Supreme Court justices Robert Brutinel, Scott Bales, Andrew Hurwitz, John Pelander and Michael Ryan. (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Arizona Supreme Court today said recall laws should be construed “liberally” because they’re written to protect the public’s right to remove an official — not for a politician’s benefit.

The court released the much-awaited explanation of its September ruling that quashed a challenge against the recall petition targeting Senate President Russell Pearce.

Pearce lost his race to fellow Republican Jerry Lewis on Nov. 8. He was the first sitting legislator to face a recall.

The court’s explanation is important since it will serve as case law and a guide to future legal actions dealing with recall petitions.

A trial court earlier ruled that the recall petition was valid. The high court had affirmed that decision.

In its explanation today, the court said abandoning its decades-old interpretation of recall laws would be disrespecting Arizona’s “strong devotion to recall as a progressive process” intended for the public’s benefit.

The legal challenge to the recall petitions against Pearce involved two main points.

One was the petition circulators of Citizens for a Better Arizona, which spearheaded the recall drive, failed to follow the state Constitution’s mandate to take an oath that the signatures they collected were “genuine.”

The second issue dealt with the standard in reviewing the case.

Pearce’s allies wanted the courts to apply “strict” compliance in considering whether the petition satisfied the law.

In denying what Pearce’s supporters sought, the justices invoked historical precedent.

“The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1910 were willing to risk statehood over a robust recall system that subjected every official to removal,” the justices said.

“Adopting a standard that makes it more difficult for the public to remove its own officers would frustrate this historical intent. Seeing no reason to abandon 86 years of precedent and 100 years of commitment to popular recall, we reaffirm our support of Abbey’s substantial compliance standard,” they said.

The justices were referring to a 1925 case in which the high court first laid down the “substantial compliance” standard in reviewing a recall petition.

The justices also affirmed a trial court’s view that the recall petition satisfied constitutional requirements, even though the oath taken by those who circulated the petition sheets didn’t literally contain the word “genuine.”

“As the trial judge observed, this oath is the substantial equivalent of avowing the genuineness of the signatures,” the justices said, arguing that the state Constitution doesn’t require any particular form but instead sets forward the oath’s contents.

“Requiring anything more than affirmation that the circulator believed that the signers were qualified electors and that they signed in his presence would frustrate rather than promote the public’s right to recall,” the justices said.

The justices also shot down the notion that the recall petition’s statement, which declared the grounds for recalling Pearce, was misleading.

In August, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Hugh Hegyi rejected the claim by Pearce’s supporters that the oath did not contain the precise wording required by the Arizona Constitution because it literally lacked the word “genuine.”

“If a circulator swears under oath that he or she believes that the signer’s name and address are correctly stated, the court is at a loss to determine a component of genuineness that could be missing,” Hegyi said.

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