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Arizona lawmakers advance states’ rights bills

A vehicle travels in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Grant Martin)

Arizona legislators are pushing back against the federal government on a host of issues this session by advancing legislation that seeks a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, sets up a committee to review all federal mandates and requires federal law enforcement officers to notify local sheriffs before taking action.

Republican lawmakers say the federal government either isn’t doing its job or is overreaching with unconstitutional mandates. Legislators cite the lawsuits over the federal health care overhaul and Arizona’s immigration law as two cases where the state is fighting federal overreach and gaining traction. Both cases are set for rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, critics are skeptical that the Legislature’s proposals are constitutional or worth the state’s time and money. Legal experts say it’s unlikely they’ll go very far in court. Some Republicans shared that skepticism, as several voted with Democrats to kill two of the proposals Monday over concerns the bills were unconstitutional.

But at least four other bills that attempt to assert state sovereignty are nearing passage in the Republican-led Legislature.

One proposal establishes a state council to review federal laws and regulations to determine whether they’re constitutional. The council would then determine whether it’s legally and financially feasible for the state to challenge those policies.

Another bill sets aside $250,000 to the state to sue the U.S. Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act. Lawmakers sponsoring the legislation contend that the Forest Service failed to properly thin Arizona forests, leading to large forest fires that destroyed habitats for endangered species.

“Because of the lack of management, I think they need to be held accountable,” said Republican Sen. Gail Griffin of Hereford during a Senate hearing on the bill earlier this month.

That legislation and the proposal to create a council to review federal laws are pending in the House. They have already been approved by the Senate.

Two other proposals won approval by a Senate committee Monday.

One requires federal law enforcement officers to notify local sheriffs before they take any law enforcement action in that county. The other would bar the Legislature from using state money to comply with any federal mandate unless there’s a report from the federal government showing the measure is constitutional.

The efforts to push back are needed because the federal government is violating states’ rights by overstepping its powers granted in the U.S. Constitution, said Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from Snowflake who supports many of the bills pushing back against the federal government.

“The best way to try to fix that is for the states to stand up and use the 10th Amendment and try to fix things through Legislation and lawsuits,” Allen said.

The 10th Amendment, which reserves for the states all powers that aren’t designated to the federal government, doesn’t entitle lawmakers to flout federal regulations or laws they don’t like, said Arizona State University law professor Paul Bender.

Bender also said that just because the Legislature passes a law trying to challenge a federal rule or regulation doesn’t mean it’s going to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Many of the proposals would likely end up being symbolic gestures that don’t have “any practical impact,” he said.

Two additional proposals to challenge federal authority received that judgment Monday afternoon when they failed a legal review by the House Rules committee.

One bill attempted to force the federal government to give up claims to public lands in Arizona. Another prohibited state officials from complying with the National Defense Authorization Act, which could allow for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.

Rep. Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat who voted against the measures, said he’s glad those two bills failed, but they’re two of many he thinks are unconstitutional and unrealistic.

“They’re just going to end up in court, and they’re going to cost the taxpayers of this state a lot of money as we try to litigate. And we’re ultimately going to lose, and it’s really just a waste of everybody’s time and money down here,” he said.

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