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Former state Supreme Court justice James Moeller dies

James Moeller

James Moeller

James Moeller, the author of several of precedent-setting decisions of the Arizona Supreme Court, has died.

The death last week was announced Thursday by a spokeswoman for the court.

Moeller was an attorney in private practice from 1959 until 1977, when he was appointed a Maricopa County Superior Court judge. A decade later, Gov. Evan Mecham named Moeller to the Supreme Court where he served until early 1998.

Among his ruling is one that declared Arizona’s 1988 voter-approved English-only amendment illegal because it violates federal constitutional rights.

Moeller, writing for the unanimous court, said the measure harms the ability of non-English-speaking people to obtain access to their government. He also concluded that the amendment limits the political speech of elected officials and public employees.

Moeller stressed that it was not suggesting that government agencies are required to communicate with residents in languages other than English. He said the only requirements are those imposed by federal law, such as mandates for voting materials to be provided in native languages.

And Moeller said the ruling doesn’t bar encouraging the use of English as a common language.

“But such efforts must not run afoul of constitutional requirements and individual liberties,” he wrote.

Moeller also authored a landmark ruling that opened the door for people who abuse the elderly to be sued by survivors for pain and suffering.

Until that decision, only the victims had the right to seek such damages. That provided an incentive for defendants to drag cases on in hopes that their victims might die, Moeller wrote.

He also wrote the majority 1996 ruling that restricted the ability of police to detain individuals for questioning.

Moeller said police need “articulable reasons” to stop and hold someone. Without that, he said, the person may walk away – or even run – and can cannot be arrested.

That ruling also meant that anything the police seized without such reasons cannot be introduced at trial, because those items were the product of an illegal search.

But Moeller also wound up on the losing end of some decisions, outvoted by the majority.

For example, the Supreme Court concluded that property from a marriage need not be divided equally when a couple divorces, deciding that factors including the duration of the union can be taken into account.

Moeller said that ruling was fraught with problems.

He also was in the minority in a 1994 ruling that declared Arizona’s school financing system unconstitutional because it creates wide disparities among school districts. The majority ordered lawmakers to come up with a new method of funding schools that is not heavily dependent on locally generated property taxes.

That, Moeller said, will result in centralized state school funding and endanger local control.

Moeller was not Mecham’s first pick for the high court.

The governor did not like any of the nominees on the list forwarded to him by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments. But he chose Moeller, who was on the list, after Chief Justice Tom Zlaket then informed the governor that the selection would go to him if the governor did not make a choice.

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