By Howard Fischer
PHOENIX - The Arizona House of Representatives is considering a measure that would prohibit anyone in this country illegally from collecting punitive damages after winning a lawsuit.
Voters already approved a constitutional amendment doing precisely that in 2006 - two years too late for Cochise County rancher Roger Barnett, who was sued following a 2004 incident when 16 illegal immigrants said the rancher illegally imprisoned them. Barnett was the prime beneficiary, and motivating force, of the law.
HB 2191, the new measure, would make the ballot amendment retroactive to the start of 2004.
If it survives the legislative process - and if it is found legal - the change could save Barnett $60,000, the amount of punitive damages four of the plaintiffs were awarded two years ago. Rep. Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix, said that's exactly what he has in mind.
Jaime Ferrant, of the Border Action Network, said the measure "sets a dangerous precedent."
"This bill would establish that a certain person, or certain persons, are so important that we must make sure that they get their own set of laws to protect them," Ferrant said. "Mr. Barnett had his day in court."
Weiers was undeterred.
He said nearly 75 percent of those voting in 2006 approved the constitutional change, which he said is a clear indication of the will of the people.
The amendment, referred to the ballot by the Legislature, was a direct reaction to the fact lawmakers knew Barnett was being sued, Weiers said.
"We weren't smart enough at that point to understand that there was going to be a time lapse," Weiers said, making Barnett unable to take advantage of the change.
Weiers also said the restriction makes sense.
"How incredibly silly that you've got people breaking the law, trespassing, doing this and that on personal property, and then you're handed punitive damage awards," he said.
Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said she's not sure the measure will help Barnett, because the $60,000 verdict came in a lawsuit in federal court. But federal judges, when considering issues like this, generally look to the laws of the state where the incident occurred to determine the standard for awarding damages.
The three Democrats on the panel voted against the legislation. Rep. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, said it sends the "wrong message."
The committee action comes two weeks after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn the verdict against Barnett. The judges rejected arguments the trial judge should have told jurors they could consider his claim of self-defense.