Gilbert v. Maricopa County – 8/15/2006

August 16, 2006

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Panel Upholds Unconstitutionality of House Bill 2145.

When Rural Metro, a private provider of fire and emergency response services, advised the county island residents in the Town of Gilbert that it would discontinue its services, the Arizona Legislature enacted HB 2145. The legislation creates a process for county island residents to create a county island fire district to obtain fire and emergency services. In short, a county island with a population of at least 100,000 that is located in a 911 service provider district with a population of between 395,000 and 500,000, can file a petition to create a county island fire district. The creation of this district permits the newly-formed district to hire a private company to fire protection and emergency medical services, but if the newly-formed district is unable to secure those services, the legislation requires that the adjoining municipality provide them.

After the county island residents filed a petition to create a fire district, Gilbert sued for injunctive and declaratory relief, claiming that the legislation violates Arizona’s constitutional prohibition against special laws. Arizona Const., Art. 4, Pt. 2, Sec. 19. After first finding that Gilbert had standing to challenge the legislation and that the matter was ripe for adjudication, the trial court agreed that the legislation was an unconstitutional special law. The court of appeals agreed, analyzing the legislation under Long v. Napolitano, 203 Ariz. 247, 53 P.3d 172 (App. 2002). Under Long, a law is general if the classification at issue is rationally related to a legitimate government interest, the classification is legitimate, and the class is elastic. Though the court agreed that the legislation was rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in ensuring that county island residents receive fire and emergency services, the court determined that the legislation failed Long’s second and third prong. First, no party disputed that the legislation only applied to county islands within Gilbert. Given the other county island areas within Maricopa county without fire and emergency services, there was no a rational reason for limiting the application of the legislation to Gilbert. Second, though the population criteria was not, on its face, inelastic, practically speaking, only four towns in Arizona with county islands have a real possibility of reaching the requisite population (100,000) within twenty years — but none of those towns meet the other criteria for the legislation’s application. Only the Town of Buckeye could theoretically meet all the criteria — but not until 2025. With such a remote possibility of only one other entity entering the class within the next twenty years, the legislation failed the third prong. Thus, the legislation was unconstitutional.

Presiding Judge Portley authored the opinion in which Judges Winthrop and Ehrlich concurred.