Bush v. Gore is the ultimate example of politics and law intersecting and it shows how lawyers can affect an election in a dramatic way. But in Arizona, every election cycle brings its own set of controversies to be settled in the courtroom.
At the center of those disputes are a relatively few lawyers in the state who make their mark on the political scene in many ways. Among other things, they help candidates navigate the maze of election law and campaign finance regulations, assert and defend challenges to candidacies, draft language for initiatives, draft legislation and try to void laws.
While all see themselves primarily as advocates for their clients, some also see their roles as being at the heart of the democratic process and having an impact on other areas of the law.
“At the end of the day all our work is supposed to be representative of not just our clients but the community and what is good for the state of Arizona,” said Roopali Desai, whose time recently has been consumed with advising clients on ballot measures.
Attorney Tom Ryan, whose practice is primarily personal injury, sees his role differently. He has made a name for himself in Arizona politics by challenging candidacies, especially on the issue of residency.
“I’m kind of the garbage man in the process. I take the trash out,” Ryan said.
One of Ryan’s recent courtroom foes, Timothy LaSota, said he takes his representation all the way to the front page if necessary.
“’No comment’ doesn’t always get the job done,” LaSota said. “Sometimes you just need an aggressive push-back publicly or just aggressive advocacy publicly.”
Most lawyers in the political realm also make it a priority to be accessible to the media to inform the public and shine a light on the process. They are happy to comment on cases they aren’t involved in to help explain the importance of an issue or the intricacies of the law. And they don’t shrink from the microphone or camera on their own cases.
“It’s a fundamental part of my practice,” said Kory Langhofer, who worked on behalf of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. “If you’re the best lawyer in town, but you can’t explain it in a way that makes sense to the press, your client is going to have a big disadvantage.” (Langhofer’s law firm is the lobbyist for the Arizona Capitol Times.) Below, the Capitol Times is featuring several of the attorneys who will be at the center of the political controversies during the year leading up to the 2014 statewide elections.
Paul Eckstein (Perkins Coie)
Eckstein is one of the deans of Arizona political law, having gotten his start in the field in 1973 representing Tom Shirley, an enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe. A lower court barred him from serving on the Apache County Board of Supervisors, and Eckstein won a state Supreme Court reversal in a ruling that held Native Americans living on reservations can hold political office in Arizona.
Eckstein went on to represent the Board of Managers of the House of Representatives in the impeachment of Gov. Evan Mecham. He has won an assortment of significant political cases, including successfully defending the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board from a $7 million fund sweep in 2009. In August, he convinced the state Supreme Court to void a 2013 law that increased the minimum number of nominees sent to the governor for appointment to the bench.
“The Legislature makes a lot of business for me,” Eckstein acknowledged.
Lisa Hauser (Gammage & Burnham Law Offices)
Hauser regularly clashed with Eckstein, saying for a time they were two of the very few attorneys who practiced political law, usually with her representing Republicans and Eckstein Democrats.
“It was the Paul and Lisa show,” she said.
Hauser learned election law by working for three different secretaries of state, all Democrats, and was co-counsel for the inaugural Independent Redistricting Commission. Litigation challenging the state’s legislative districts lasted for seven years, ending in 2009 with the state Supreme Court siding with the commission. Hauser is now challenging the commission’s work in Superior Court and helped lead Gov. Jan Brewer’s unsuccessful effort to remove commission chairwoman Colleen Mathis. She said the election lawyer plays an important role in making sure the client and the adversary both follow the rules.
“I feel a lot of times my role is making sure my client stays on message,” Hauser said. “So that whether they followed the rules or didn’t doesn’t become the big story.”
Joseph Kanefield (Ballard Spahr)
Kanefield served as Brewer’s elections director while she was the secretary of state and he later followed her to the executive office. Kanefield’s current political work includes representing the Independent Redistricting Commission, which is embroiled in three lawsuits in federal and state courts, and the Citizens Clean Elections Commission. His most recent success was in convincing the Arizona Court of Appeals that HB2593, which increased campaign contribution limits, was unconstitutional.
Kanefield said the field of election law has exploded since Gore v. Bush, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which George W. Bush staved off a challenge of the presidential election results from Al Gore. Before that decision, lawyers tended to dabble in election law during election season, but now they are devoting more of their practice or entire practices to it. Elections are more litigious, mostly because of the high amounts of money involved, he said.
“It sure seems like a lot of folks choose to pursue the legal route to resolution, as opposed to the political route,” Kanefield said.