In a stunning reversal for Gov. Jan Brewer and the state Senate, the Arizona Supreme Court reinstated Colleen Mathis as chairwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
In the ruling this evening, which came less than three hours after the court heard arguments in a lawsuit over the removal, the court said the acting governor did not fulfill the constitutional requirements for ousting a commissioner because she did not demonstrate “substantial neglect of duty, gross misconduct in office or inability to discharge the duties of office” in a Nov. 1 letter to Mathis informing her of a special session to remove her from office.
The court also disagreed with attorneys for Brewer and the Senate, who argued that the criteria for removing a commissioner is a strictly political question and that the Arizona Constitution does not provide the courts the right to review their decision.
“The court concludes that the issues presented in this matter are not political questions and are therefore justiciable,” Vice Chief Justice Andrew Hurwitz wrote.
The ruling will likely end the IRC’s hiatus, which began after the Senate voted 21-6 to remove Mathis for allegedly violating the state’s open meeting law and ignoring the constitutional criteria for drawing districts. The IRC has not met since Nov. 5, when it held the last of a 30-day round of public hearings on its draft congressional and legislative maps.
“Well, I’ll talk to Colleen tonight and do whatever she wishes us to do. She’s the chair, and she gives us direction,” IRC Executive Director Ray Bladine said. “We’ll try to check the calendars for the other commissioners. I’m sure Colleen will want to get back on track real soon.”
Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said the governor was disappointed by the ruling, but indicated that the court’s decision may not be the final word on the dispute over Mathis’ tenure as chairwoman.
“The governor strongly disagrees with the court’s decision and finds it deeply regrettable. She and legislative leaders will be speaking as quickly as possible and (will consider) their next potential steps,” Benson said. “The governor of course felt she was on strong legal footing with her legal actions, and she continues to feel that way.”
The court’s decision is likely to ratchet up recent talk of another special session to refer Proposition 106, the 2000 ballot initiative that created the IRC, back to the voters.
Thursday’s court hearing revolved mostly around whether the court had the authority to review Brewer and the Senate’s decision. IRC counsel Mary O’Grady argued that only the courts, not the governor, have oversight over how the IRC applies the six criteria for drawing district lines.
She also said the acting governor – Secretary of State Ken Bennett issued the call for a special session because Brewer was out of the state – did not properly notify Mathis of the specific allegations against her.
“(Brewer) needs to state what her conclusions are to establish that there’s gross misconduct,” O’Grady said. “The removal was based in part on mapping and that is exclusively the jurisdiction of the commission.”
Lisa Hauser, Brewer’s attorney, said the Constitution did not provide a role for the judiciary, and that the only check on the governor’s ability to remove a commissioner was the willingness of two-thirds of the Senate to concur.
“It all boils down to having some fundamental respect for the fact that the Constitution commits this choice, this decision on removal to the governor with the two-thirds concurrence of the Senate,” Hauser said. “Even if the governor were to be a rogue sort of individual who might do something that would be very off the wall, we have to assume that the Senate will function properly.”