PHOENIX (AP) — A judge on Monday struck down provisions Republican lawmakers tucked into the Arizona budget that block schools from requiring masks and restrict the power of local governments to impose COVID-19 requirements.
The ruling by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper could clear the way for cities and counties to enact mask requirements. She also ruled that an entire budget measure that served as a catch-all for a wish list of conservative policies was unconstitutional.
Cooper said the provisions violate a requirement that the content of legislation is described in its title and is confined to a single subject. State attorneys argued that they all had something to do with spending for education and health and that the Legislature didn’t need to be more specific.
“That is not correct,” Cooper wrote. “The Legislature has discretion to title a bill but, having picked a title, it must confine the contents to measures that reasonably relate to the title and to each other to form one general subject.”
The lawsuit filed by a coalition of educators and allies challenged Arizona laws prohibiting public school districts from imposing mask requirements, colleges from requiring vaccinations for students, and communities from establishing vaccine passports for entry into large events, businesses and other places.
The coalition argued a large number of Arizona children will get sick with COVID-19 if the new law wasn’t blocked.
At least 29 public school districts in Arizona have enacted their own mask requirements anyway. The districts account for more than 334,000 students and nearly 500 schools. The law barring mask mandates at public schools was scheduled to take effect Wednesday, as were the rest of the budget bills.
“This is a great day for Arizona students, families and teachers, to know they can go to school with all of the steps possible to mitigate the spread of covid in our communities, said Aaron Marquez, a school board member for Phoenix Union High School District. Phoenix Union was the first district to enact a mask mandate for their campuses despite the legislature putting a ban on it and Gov. Ducey signing off on it. “It was reckless. It was completely reckless and misguided and didn’t follow the health and science best practices,” said Marquez.
The Governor's Office said it's still reviewing the ruling but said the decision is "is clearly an example of judicial overreach." "Arizona’s state government operates with three branches, and it’s the duty and authority of only the legislative branch to organize itself and to make laws. Unfortunately, today’s decision is the result of a rogue judge interfering with the authority and processes of another branch of government," said CJ Karamargin with Gov. Doug Ducey's Office. He said further action will be taken to "ensure separation of powers is maintained," meaning an appeal is likely.
The restrictions were written into budget bills that were passed near the end of the legislative session with only support from majority Republicans. The ruling has far-reaching ramifications for the Legislature, which has long ignored the constitutional requirement that budget bills only deal with spending items. Instead, they have packed with them policy items, and this year Republicans who control the Legislature were especially aggressive.
A Phoenix Union teacher had sued the district for requiring masks too, and that litigation was put on hold until the ban went into effect. So now what happens to that? “The extent the other lawsuits are based upon enforcing this statute that never went into effect, those lawsuits evaporate now,” said Phoenix attorney Dan Barr.
Barr said the only way that would change is if an appellate court overturns this ruling, but he suspects this creates change down at the Capitol moving forward. “If this ruling stands, it’s going to change the way the business is down at the legislature when you have this sort of horse swapping at the end of a session,” Barr said.
Opponents also asked the judge to undo other laws unrelated to COVID-19 prevention efforts, which she did. One prohibits the use of state money for teaching critical race theory, a way of thinking about America’s history that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
The judge pointed to the single-subject rule to overturn SB1898, the bill filled with GOP policy wishes. It included what she called “multiple, unrelated subjects” like dog racing, the governor’s emergency powers, local COVID-19 measures and much more.
“None of these subjects have any logical connection to each other nor ‘fall under some one general idea,’” Cooper wrote.
Other parts of that law that the judge blocked would have stripped the Democratic secretary of state of the duty to defend state election laws, would have let the state Game and Fish Department register voters and would have set up a special legislative committee to review the results of the state Senate’s partisan audit of the 2020 election.
Lawyers for the coalition that sued that the law, which was tucked into the main budget legislation, should be blocked entirely because it had virtually nothing to do with directing spending and contained unrelated policy items.
The state, which was sued as part of the legal challenge, argued that how the laws in question were written and their contents are questions for lawmakers, not the courts.
An attorney representing the state said the Constitution does not require lawmakers to specify each item they include in so-called budget reconciliation bills that direct spending and that a ruling agreeing that the Legislature violated the Constitution could upend years of budget measures that added unrelated policy items.