PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state Legislature illegally passed a ban on mask mandates and other COVID-19 protocols by adding a series of measures in unrelated budget bills.
The unanimous decision was announced just two hours after the high court heard arguments in the state's appeal.
The brief order, signed by Chief Justice Robert Brutinel, said an opinion would be released "in due course."
The landmark decision, upholding a lower-court ruling against the Republican-controlled Legislature, has both short- and long-term impacts:
- State laws banning COVID-19 mandates by schools, universities and governments remain on hold.
- The ruling appears to nullify several controversial bills that have nothing to do with spending but were stuffed into this year's state budget. Among them: a ban on mandatory COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including the use of face coverings; limits on the Democratic secretary of state's powers; and restrictions on what schools can teach about race.
- In the long term, the ruling could bring to an end the Legislature's way of getting things done. The lawsuit took aim at the practice of "logrolling" - trading votes on a budget in exchange for a lawmaker's pet piece of legislation that might have nothing to do with a budget.
In affirming the lower court ruling, the Supreme Court agreed that the practice of stuffing budget bills with unrelated policy legislation violated the state Constitution's "single-subject rule" for bills.
The court's ultimate ruling remains unknown. During Tuesday's hearing, the justices pressed both sides for their ideas on how the court should structure a ruling.
The state's lawyers, from Attorney General Mark Brnovich's office, argued the court should pre-empt budget stuffing by future Legislatures while allowing the current budget bills to stand.
The plaintiffs, a group of education and children's advocates, have asked the court to toss out entire bills.
The ruling is a defeat for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey at the hands of a court whose majority was appointed by Ducey.
Even though the ban on COVID mandates had been put on hold by the ongoing court case, Ducey threatened to withhold federal dollars from school districts that imposed mandates and rewarded parents who left those districts.
In a statement Tuesday, Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said:
*We are extremely disappointed in the ruling... We respect the role of the judiciary, but the court should give the same respect to the separate authority of the Legislature.
"We believe every Arizonan should have the ability to make their own health decisions with the guidance of their doctor, not because of some government mandate."
The legal battle against the mandate ban started in early August.
The Phoenix Union High School District, located in an area with high transmission of the COVID-19 virus, imposed a mask mandate as school resumed.
The district's attorneys saw what many others didn't: The mandate ban wouldn't become law until the end of September. The district could legally enforce a mask requirement while taking on a court fight.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper blocked the law from taking effect at the end of September. Now, it appears, the ban won't become law for the foreseeable future.
The Supreme Court's ruling also lifts a legal weight off the City of Tucson.
The city's vaccine mandate for government employees was contrary to the suspended state ban on COVID mitigation. The city also faced a legal review of its mandate by Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said in a tweet:
"Governor Ducey and the state Legislature's ’attempts to thwart our Constitution and obstruct science-based public health measures - including the City of Tucson’s vaccine policy for city workers - are legally meaningless, void, and unenforceable."
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