City of Tucson v. State – 4/20/2011

April 25, 2011

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Holds That Tucson’s City Charter Supersedes Conflicting State Statute Concerning Procedures for Electing City Council Members.

Plaintiff City of Tucson is chartered under the Arizona Constitution.  City council members are nominated by ward but elected in at-large, general elections that are partisan in nature.  In 2009, the State amended A.R.S. § 9-821.01 to prohibit partisan elections and at-large elections where council members are designated by ward.  Tucson sued the State for declaratory and injunctive relief, claiming that the amended statute would require it to change its election process.  The State and Tucson filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the State.  Tucson timely appealed. 

The ArizonaAppeals Court reversed.   Under Article XIII, § 2 of the Arizona Constitution, a city with a population over 3,500 is entitled to establish a charter for its government.  Citing Strode v. Sullivan, 72 Ariz. 360, 236 P.2d 48 (1951), the Court explained that a city charter generally grants a city autonomy over matters of solely local concern.  Thus, if a statute conflicts with a city charter on an issue solely of local concern, the charter supersedes the statute.  On the other hand, a statute will supersede conflicting provisions of a city charter if the interest affected is of statewide concern.   

The Court first held that Tucson’s charter conflicts with A.R.S. § 9-821.01 with respect to partisan elections because the charter permits such elections.  The Court then held that the election of council members is a matter of local interest, and thus Tucson’s charter supersedes A.R.S. § 9-821.01.  The Court relied on Strode, which states that “the method and manner of conducting [municipal] elections . . . [are] peculiarly the subject of local interest and [are] not . . . matter[s] of statewide concern.”  The Court gave minimal weight to the legislature’s statement of intent – which claimed that the statutory amendment involved a matter of statewide concern – because the statement did not identify what statewide concern was implicated, and instead was merely boilerplate language adopted in anticipation of a lawsuit. 

The Court rejected the State’s argument that there was a statewide interest in effective and efficient local governance promoted by non-partisan elections, explaining that the relationship of voters to their municipality is a purely local matter.  The Court also rejected the State’s argument that there was a statewide interest in fair elections promoted by eliminating at-large elections, pointing out that the amendment to A.R.S. § 9-821.01 does not impose a blanket prohibition on at-large elections – it only prohibits such elections in Tucson – and there is no evidence that Tucson’s at-large elections have discriminatory effects.

Judge Espinosa dissented in part, arguing that the elimination of at-large elections is a statewide concern because it bears on Arizona’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act.  

Chief Judge Howard authored the opinion; Presiding Judge Brammer concurred.  Judge Espinosa dissented in part and concurred in part.