Clark v. Muñoz – 7/29/2014

August 19, 2014

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Nominating Petitions for Constable’s Race That Included Photograph of Constable’s Badge Failed to Substantially Comply with the Statutorily Specified Form for Petitions Because They Had the Potential to Confuse or Mislead Voters.

Jimmy Muñoz, Jr. submitted nominating petitions to run for Constable for the Downtown Justice of the Peace Precinct of Maricopa County.  Several of his petition sheets contained a photograph of the Maricopa County constable’s badge.  The incumbent constable, Doug Clark, brought suit to remove Muñoz from the ballot, arguing that Muñoz’s nominating petitions did not comply with statutory requirements and that even if Muñoz’s petition sheets were valid, he did not have enough valid signatures.  The superior court agreed with Clark and ordered that Muñoz’s name be removed from the ballot.  Muñoz timely appealed.   

A three-judge panel of the Supreme Court affirmed.  A.R.S. § 16-315(A) (1)-(4) specifies the basic layout of petition sheets and the information they must contain, stating that petitions must be in “substantially” the specified form.  Subsection (5) allows nominating petitions to include a photograph of the candidate.  The Court held that although the statute does not explicitly prohibit photographs of things other than the candidate, the legislature’s decision to specifically allow only one kind of photograph suggests that it intended to preclude all other types of photographs.  Thus, Muñoz’s nominating petitions did not strictly comply with the specified statutory form.

Because candidates are not removed from a ballot for mere technical departures from the form, the Court assessed whether Muñoz’s nominating papers substantially complied with the statutory requirements.  The Court held that the applicable standard is whether an unauthorized addition to a nominating petition has the “potential to confuse or mislead.”  Dedolph v. McDermott, 230 Ariz. 130, 133 ¶ 18, 281 P.3d 484, 487 (2012).  In this case, the Court held that the unauthorized photograph of the constable badge could confuse or mislead voters into believing that Muñoz was an incumbent constable, or that the petition forms were official County documents.  Thus, Muñoz’s petitions sheets did not substantially comply with A.R.S. § 16-315(A).

The Court also rejected Muñoz’s argument that the trial court committed fundamental error by using an incorrect “Petition Signature Worksheet.”  The Court declined to hold that the fundamental error doctrine applies in the election context, but explained that even if the doctrine applied, Muñoz could not meet his burden of showing that the error caused him prejudice. 

Chief Justice Bales authored the opinion; Justices Berch and Brutinel concurre