Az Supreme Court rules laws blocking school vaccine & mask mandates were unconstitutionally passed
Law barring teaching of 'critical race theory' also tossed over procedural violations
The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling Tuesday that a series of laws passed by the Arizona Legislature barring schools from implementing COVID mask and vaccination mandates was unconstitutional.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper, who ruled in September that the Legislature violated a requirement of the state Constitution that bills be limited to one subject, and that a bill's overall title represent its contents. Instead, the Legislature had engaged in "logrolling" by passing the bills as part of the state's $12.8 billion overall budget package, she said.
In a succinct ruling released within two hours of the court hearing oral arguments Tuesday, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel wrote simply that "while the court does not adopt the trial court's reasoning in its entirety, it is ordered unanimously affirming the trial court's judgement."
The decision does not indicate that the Legislature could not have separately passed those measures, but that the packaging of them all together with unrelated measures did not pass constitutional muster.
"This was a hearing about the legislative process," said Ducey's chief spokesman, C.J. Karamargin. "We are extremely disappointed in the ruling. There are three separate co-equal branches of government, and we respect the role of the judiciary — but the court should give the same respect to the separate authority of the Legislature."
Ducey, who is traveling in Europe this week, has appointed five of the seven members of the state Supreme Court, after pushing an expansion that added two members in 2016.
"As it relates to the provisions protecting Arizonans from burdensome mandates, we believe every Arizonan should have the ability to make their own health decisions with the guidance of their doctor, not because of some government mandate," Karamargin said.
The Arizona Public Health Association called the ruling a "win for public health," while Tucson Mayor Regina Romero welcomed the decision.
"Today's unanimous ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court re-affirms that Gov. Ducey and the state Legislature's attempts to thwart our Constitution and obstruct science-based public health measures — including the city of Tucson's vaccine policy for city workers — are legally meaningless, void, and unenforceable," Romero said in a press release. "This ruling should serve as a reminder to both Gov. Ducey and our state Legislature that they are not above the Arizona Constitution."
"Now that the legal issues have been resolved, I hope we can all focus our attention towards ensuring every eligible Arizonan is vaccinated. This must be our top priority so that we can continue our economic recovery and keep our communities healthy," the Democratic mayor said.
State House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding called the ruling "a huge win for Arizona students and voters."
"This is also a win for the legislative process," Bolding said. "It was never appropriate for the speaker and Senate president to load up the budget with unrelated and controversial policy items to mollify certain extreme members and avoid negotiating a bi-partisan budget. The bottom line is Arizona public school students, teachers and staff will be better protected from COVID-19 because school boards can take necessary measures to protect them without politicized anti-science interference from the governor and Republican lawmakers. A unanimous ruling from a Ducey-appointed Supreme Court is as strong a rebuke as we can imagine."
Cooper's decision was the result of a lawsuit launched earlier this year by a coalition of state education groups—including the Arizona Educational Association, the Children's Action Alliance, the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Advocacy Network and 11 individuals—over three measures that were wrapped into a last-minute, must-pass budget reconciliation package.
Included in the package were bills that blocked local governments from implementing mask mandates, as well as prohibiting vaccination requirements, and prohibiting so-called "vaccine passports." This includes a bill that banned "critical race theory," blocking public schools from teaching anything that "presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex."
The measures were supported by the Republican majority in the Legislature, and the packaged legislation was quickly signed into law by Ducey.
However, soon after the legislation cleared Ducey's desk, several school districts revolted, announcing they would require masks in spite of the laws and that the law could not go into effect until Sept. 29, 90 days after the end of the legislative session. In August, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall H. Warner agreed, effectively blocking the laws until the end of September.
Led by included Phoenix Union High Schools, and followed by the Tucson Unified School District, within weeks at least 14 school districts across the state implemented mask mandates—including Amphitheater Public Schools, Flowing Wells Unified School District, Sunnyside Unified School District, Catalina Foothils School District. Overall, nearly 85,000 students are included in these districts alone.
In her ruling, Cooper said that the court was not asked to "decide whether the Legislature should enact policy or what that policy should be."
"The issue here is not what the Legislature decided but how it decided what it did," she wrote. While the Legislature has "discretion to title a bill...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."
After Cooper's ruling was announced, the governor's office attacked her decision, calling it "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," he said. "Unfortunately, today's decision is the result of a rogue judge interfering with the authority and processes of another branch of government," C.J. Karamargin, Ducey's spokesman, said at the time. "Further action will be taken to challenge this ruling and ensure separation of powers is maintained," he said.
However, the Supreme Court agreed with Cooper, effectively blunting most of the laws attached to the state budget that attempted to block, or undermine mask and vaccine mandates.