Saying he's saving taxpayer funds, Attorney General Terry Goddard on Friday bowed out of defending the legality of the state's new immigration law.
In a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer, Goddard said he still disputes her contention that she alone can control the defense of SB 1070 in five separate federal court lawsuits that have been filed so far. Goddard said while Brewer is entitled to play a role in defending the state, the Arizona Constitution makes him the state's attorney.
And Goddard said his staff has been working cooperatively with the private attorneys Brewer has hired.
But he told Brewer that a letter she sent him Monday threatening to go to court to have him thrown off the case would create an entire new side issue and detract from the underlying need to defend the law.
"More fundamentally, it would constitute yet another wasteful political lawsuit at taxpayers' expense at a time when our state cannot afford another political feud,'' the attorney general wrote.
Gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said Goddard did the right thing.
"The governor's grateful that he's changed his mind,'' Senseman said. "She agrees that he has a conflict of interest in this case and that she speaks on behalf of the state of Arizona on SB 1070.''
Goddard said no such conflict exists.
He acknowledged he has never been a fan of the legislation which requires police who have stopped someone to check their immigration status if there is "reasonable suspicion'' if they are in this country illegally. It also allows police to charge illegal immigrants with trespass and creates new state crimes of harboring or concealing those in this country in violation of federal immigration laws.
Goddard nothing in the law solves the underlying problem of illegal immigration.
But Goddard said lawmakers subsequently made some changes to the original statute that make it legally defensible, including removing a provision that would have allowed police to consider a person's race, ethnicity or national origin in determining who to question. Goddard said he was prepared to make those arguments in court, regardless of his personal opinion about the merits of the measure.
Brewer's successful move to be the sole legal defender of SB 1070 carries political risks for the governor. If the law is struck down, then Goddard, the lone Democratic candidate for governor, could say she botched it by deciding to go it alone.
That thought has crossed his mind.
"Our defense of the statute would be far more effective and would take advantage of the best legal team in Arizona by doing it cooperatively,'' he told Capitol Media Services.
Separately, Brewer said late Friday her defense team was filing legal papers asking a federal judge to throw out the main challenge to the law.
Brewer said her lawyers are arguing that the challengers in that suit "lack standing to pursue their claims and have failed to establish any real and immediate threat of harm.'' The governor said the response in the case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Immigration Law Center, says claims the Arizona law infringe on the exclusive right of the federal government to regulate immigration are "without merit.''
Generally speaking it would be Goddard's office that defends the legality of state statutes.
But lawmakers, in changes to the original SB 1070, directed Goddard to act at the governor's direction. And it empowered Brewer to hire outside lawyers to defend the law if she wanted.
Brewer did just that almost immediately, contending Goddard's personal opposition made him an unsuitable defender. That fight escalated on Monday when she told him to bow out or she would go to court force the issue.
Goddard said his inherent constitutional authority as attorney general trumps the legislation.
"Although we would win, it would be a very significant distraction, costly in both time and money,'' Goddard said of that fight.
"It would be very, very debilitation to the state's effort'' to defend SB 1070, he continued. "So I think that in the best interest of Arizona it was necessary to step down and not be a participant.''
Goddard said he believes the governor's whole effort to mount the sole defense of the law is political, saying she hopes "to seek partisan political points.''