State's high court to take another look at partisan elections - East Valley Tribune: Politics

State's high court to take another look at partisan elections

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Posted: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 10:16 am

Foes of Tucson’s system of partisan elections are going to get another chance to wipe them out.

Without comment, the Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to consider arguments by attorneys for both the state and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council that the Legislature is legally entitled to require all cities to elect a mayor and council members without regard to party affiliation. Only Tucson maintains such a system.

The high court also will consider whether to void Tucson’s modified ward election system, where candidates are nominated in a ward-only election before moving on to a citywide general election.

Tuesday’s ruling does not mean the justices intend to overturn the decision earlier this year by the state Court of Appeals overturning the efforts by state lawmakers to force a change in Tucson’s elections.

But the Supreme Court accepts only a small percentage of cases for review. If nothing else, the decision to not just consider the question but ask both sides to argue it in open court, suggests the justices want to weigh in on the question themselves.

The fight is over 2009 legislation crafted by Jonathan Paton who was a Republican state senator from Tucson to scrap partisan labels from candidates.

“I don’t think there’s a Republican or a Democratic way to pick up the trash or police the streets,’’ he said.

Paton also said the modified ward system creates situations where individuals can appeal to those in their own neighborhoods only to have those choices thwarted by voters from the rest of the city in the general election.

“It’s a stupid way of electing people,’’ he said. His legislation would give the city a choice: maintain the wards but have only voters in each district make the final choice, or have all council members nominated and elected citywide.

The city sued to overturn the law, losing the first round when a trial judge said the Legislature is within its rights to tell cities how to run elections.

Earlier this year, though, the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that lawmakers have no business telling Tucson it has to have nonpartisan elections. The judges said the Arizona Constitution gives charter cities like Tucson broad authority over matters that are solely of local concern, rejecting arguments that the state has a legitimate interest in the issue.

The appellate court split, however, over the question of whether Tucson had to scrap its modified ward system, with the majority siding with Tucson.

Appellate Judge Joseph Howard, writing for the court, said the state’s arguments that nonpartisan elections promote “effective and efficient local government’’ is legally irrelevant.

“The relationship of voters to their municipality is purely a local matter,’’ he wrote. “Tucson voters have the right to make their own choice in that regard.’’

Paton’s desire for nonpartisan elections is limited to local races. He opposes a proposed 2012 initiative that would extend that to legislative, congressional and statewide elections.

“There are more definite partisan divides on the statewide and the national level,’’ he said.

“There’s abortion, there is the death penalty, there’s a whole series of issues that I think are more partisan based,’’ Paton continued. “And they have definite party platforms ... that address those things.’’

Council members were meeting late Tuesday and not available for comment.

No date has been set for the hearing.

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