The Arizona Supreme Court ruled last week that the city of Tucson ordinance allowing for the destruction of guns that are either turned in by the public or come into the city’s hands through the court system is pre-empted by state law.
The decision was hailed by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich as a “huge victory for the rule of law.” In fact, it represents a real and imminent threat to the ability of jurisdictions to make and enforce laws that reflect their own local values.
The court decision shows what results when all three branches of government at the state level are controlled and driven by a common ideology. Arizona is not alone. Republicans control both state houses in 32 states, and the governorship in 25 of those. Add to that in our case an attorney general who swings far right, and the fact that Gov. Doug Ducey recently packed the Supreme Court with two new judges that fit his ideological bias, and the table was set for this attack on home rule.
The actions we’ve witnessed in this case, as well as with similar examples across the country, highlight the empty rhetoric behind claims from Republicans who champion the notion of local, decentralized control. House Speaker Paul Ryan is quoted as having said, “Government closest to the people governs best.” And yet in Missouri, we see an effort to restrict St. Louis from enacting an ordinance banning employer and housing discrimination against women who use contraception or have abortions. The governor calls St. Louis an “abortion sanctuary city.”
In Alabama, Birmingham is fighting against a state effort to ban cities from setting their own minimum wages. And in North Carolina, their so-called “bathroom bill” was an effort to end a local Charlotte ordinance that added gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination policy.
The Ducey/Legislature/court trifecta is acting in concert with efforts to eviscerate local decision-making that reflects the values of local areas.
The Arizona case was grounded on a law (SB1487) that places a city’s state-shared revenues at risk. It gives any state legislator the ability to petition the attorney general, allege a local ordinance may violate state statute, and if the AG feels it might, he can authorize the state treasurer to begin withholding state-shared revenues until the jurisdiction repeals its ordinance.
The ruse that the law in question must be of statewide concern was exposed for what it is in the court briefs. Justice Clint Bolick — fresh from the Goldwater Institute — made it clear his guiding philosophy is that Charter cities are authorized to decide how to hold their own elections, but beyond that, what the state says is controlling. The court concedes the “obvious takeaway from Justice Bolick’s concurrence is this; assuming it is constitutional, a state statute on any particular topic will always trump and invalidate a political subdivision’s.”
The court admitted one piece of SB1487 might be unconstitutional. That is the requirement that a jurisdiction post a bond in order to come before the court. In another context, those filing fees were called “poll taxes.”
Dating back to the days when hooded and robed masters tried to keep their slaves from voting, they were found to be unconstitutional.
The Arizona Supreme Court’s robed masters simply told the Legislature to go back and fix this flaw in its law.
The result of the court decision is that the city of Tucson is compelled by the state to become its arms dealer, regardless of the desires of individuals who would have us dispose of their unwanted weapons.
So much for civil liberties, another alleged hallmark of the Republican right.
No, Mr. Brnovich, this was not a great victory for the rule of law.
It was an affront to the rights of the people to self-govern. And it exposes the ideological hypocrisy that exists within each branch of the state government, not only in Arizona, but across the nation where we see this encroachment on home rule becoming the norm.