A judge has voided a new state law that its sponsor admits was designed to shift control of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors from Democrats to Republicans.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Edward Burke said the legislation approved earlier this year is unconstitutional. Burke said he found several legal flaws in the law.
The ruling, made public Wednesday, is most immediately a victory for the two Democrats on the three-member Pinal County Board of Supervisors. It means they will remain in political control of the board through 2010 - and, in all likelihood, through 2012.
"It's a crying shame," said state Sen. Al Melvin, who crafted the measure. Melvin, a Republican who lives in the Saddlebrook subdivision of southern Pinal County but whose legislative district includes much of Pima County, acknowledged Wednesday the sole purpose of the bill was to shift control of the board into Republican hands after the 2010 election.
Central to the fight is a state law that says any county with more than 200,000 residents must have a five-member board.
In 2001, when the last lines were drawn, Pinal County was below that threshold. The current population now far exceeds 300,000.
Under normal circumstances, that would mean going to a five-member board for the 2012 election, after the next decennial census. But Melvin said voters - particularly Republicans he said are not being properly represented - shouldn't have to wait that long to get a board he believes the GOP would control by a 3-2 margin.
"It's political control of the county," he said.
His bill directed the Pinal supervisors to recraft the county into five districts, using the current lines for the five members of the Central Arizona College governing board. The measure passed with not a single Democrat in support and was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, also a Republican.
Several residents hired attorney Paul Eckstein to file suit against the supervisors in Pinal County Superior Court to block the move.
The board, still in Democratic hands, voted not to defend the law. And no one from the Legislature intervened.
Burke, who handled the case after all the Pinal County judges disqualified themselves, said the measure, which applies only to Pinal County, runs afoul of a provision in the Arizona Constitution that prohibits "local or special laws."
Even if it didn't, Burke pointed out the law would have required the two new supervisors to be elected in 2010 to serve just two-year terms. That, he said, violates another constitutional provision saying all supervisors have four-year terms.
Finally, Burke said the populations in each of the five community college districts that Melvin's legislation sought to use for the 2010 election are now far out of balance with each other, violating constitutional requirements for equal representation.
Melvin said the current three districts are not fair because of rapid growth in some areas, growth he said has added far more Republicans to the county than Democrats.
The latest voter registration figures show the two parties virtually neck-and-neck, with 51,956 Democrats and 50,111 Republicans, with close to 43,000 independents. At the time of the 2000 election, Democrats held an edge of 39,536 to 23,522, with fewer than 11,000 independents.
Pinal County Attorney James Walsh, also a Democrat, blasted the law Wednesday as an illegal effort to “jump-start” the inevitable process of expanding the board, calling it “fatally flawed and ill-timed.” He said if the case had gone the other way, Pinal County taxpayers would have had to pick up the cost of adding two new supervisors and additional staff.
The ruling means Pinal County taxpayers also will have to pay Eckstein’s legal fees since he won the case. The amount of those fees has not yet been computed.