Enforcing Arizona’s Progressive Constitution

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of a panel that I saw the Arizona Historical Society concerning the state’s constitution and its place in the progressive movement. It was interesting to hear about how groundbreaking Arizona’s founding document was and how involved labor and the progressive movement were in constructing that document, but it wasn’t entirely convincing since Arizona is so reactionary now. Arizona, after all, is the home to a slew of seemingly disastrous legislative ideas and hosts some of the most conservative state officials in the country.

The third speaker at Wednesday’s panel was Paul Bender, a law professor at ASU, who concentrated on Arizona’s State Supreme Court and explained how it had allowed – or took part in – the gradual crumbling of the state’s relatively progressive constitution. He broke his lecture into three ways in which the Court has treated the constitution: stripping it down, protecting it, and ignoring it altogether.

Direct Democracy

Bender argued that the Arizona Supreme Court was uncomfortable with the amount of direct democracy inherent in the constitution, and therefore allowed the state’s government to circumvent some of the obstacles that direct democracy created. The initiative process in the constitution allows the general public to circumvent the legislature in the lawmaking process, creating laws by popular ballot. This inherently implies that the legislature is beholden to what the people decide, however there were a number of instances in which the legislature repealed laws passed by initiative. When the issue was brought before the judicial branch, judges said they saw no issue with legislators opposing popular initiatives.

In addition, Bender explained, state legislation is not supposed to go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends, allowing time for the public to gather signatures for an opposing referendum if so desired. There is a provision that allows legislation to be enacted immediately during emergency situations, with 2/3 of the legislature’s approval. Often times, the legislature invokes an emergency without the grounds to do so, and when this is brought up to the courts, they deny review on the grounds that it is too political an issue.

And so we see instances in which the legislature pushes back against the control that the constitution grants the public over governance. But beyond this, we also see the judiciary stepping aside and allowing it to happen despite clear breaches of the law.

The Right to File Suit for Damages

The state of Arizona’s constitution specifically enumerates the right to sue for damages, which might seem bizarre to many. It’s as much a product of the times as the rest of the constitution – hearkening to labor’s involvement and the fear of major corporations corrupting the system. Indeed, there were some occasions of the legislation trying to limit the right to file suit through statues of limitations or restrictions on types of cases – all of which have been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why: the judges are preserving common law precedence. Men and women trained in the ways of law are working to preserve the law as it is. This doesn’t ring of hypocrisy when compared to the relatively foreign idea of the populace creating laws on their own. Where the courts were uncomfortable with direct democracy, they were more than comfortable with civil suits – and so they protected the notion of a right to sue.

Individual Rights

The U.S. Bill of Rights specifies rights that the federal government cannot abridge. Historically, it did not apply to state governments until the Supreme Court began to implement a more activist reading of the document. It is for this reason that many states have almost identical rights included in their own state constitutions. Arizona is no different, except that the rights listed are more broad that the Bill of Rights. Take, for example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And compare it to the Arizona constitution’s Article II, Sections 5 and 6:

Section 5. The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.

Section 6. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.

The key difference is that the former specifies that one’s rights are protected from Congress, but makes no mention of state and local governments as well as private businesses and citizens. The latter simple states that everyone enjoys these rights – it implies that no one may abridge them. According to Bender, the Arizona Supreme Court has sometimes used to these provisions to protect people’s rights, but often defers to the more restrained precedence of the Supreme Court of the United States.

During the campaign to recall Governor Evan Mecham in 1987, campaign volunteers were prohibited from collecting signatures at some shopping malls – in Fiesta Mall Venture v. Mecham Recall Committee the state Appeals Court cited the U.S. Bill of Rights and upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court denied review. Similarly, in the case of Morton Berger, the state Supreme Court upheld his 200 year minimum sentencing for possession of child pornography, arguing that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedence instead of looking at the state constitution’s 8th amendment equivalent, Article 2, Section 15.

These are just some of the examples provided at the forum. It seems that the state’s judges have frequently ignored the progressive and protective provisions of the state’s constitution and instead either allow the legislature to be unaccountable or defer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. It is unfortunate to see the opportunity to defend civil liberties pass by because judges choose to forget that the state’s founding document protects them. But of course, judges in Arizona can be recalled and must pass retention votes every cycle – and several Republican lawmakers have threatened to do away with the merit-based selection system. While it is important to hold judges accountable as well, some of these rulings raise the question of whether or not judges should be elected and whether or not they are serving in the interests of the state’s constitution and the people who are protected by it – the public.

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One response to “Enforcing Arizona’s Progressive Constitution

  1. The laws are just ink on paper, paying lipservice to a civilized society. Mostly we are not. Civilized, that is. Most real people never have a prayer of enforcing the laws on their own behalf. More than 30 years in AZ has taught me this truth. I still love Arizona – parts anyways but when I came here I thought AZ was backwards. Now looking about the rest of the nation I see that Arizona was harbinger of future.

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