Ross v. Bennett – 11/14/2011

November 28, 2011

Arizona Supreme Court Holds That Constitutional and Statutory Provisions Governing Recall of Public Officers Will Be Liberally Interpreted to Protect the Public’s Right to Recall Officials and That a Substantial Compliance Standard Applies to Recall Petitions .

On January 31, 2011, Citizens for a Better Arizona filed an application seeking to recall State Senator Russell Pearce in Legislative District 18. Of the initial 18,315 signatures submitted, 7,950 were found to be invalid. The remaining 10,365 certified signatures, however, exceeded the minimum requirement of 7,756 signatures to force a recall election of Senator Pearce and Governor Brewer ordered that special recall election be scheduled. Franklin Bruce Ross, an elector from District 18, filed suit in superior court seeking to enjoin the election arguing among other things that the recall petition failed to comply with constitutional and statutory requirements, that the oath signed by petition circulators was deficient, and that the recall petition did not state adequate grounds for the recall. The superior court refused to enjoin the election and granted judgment for the defendants. Ross appealed to the court of appeals, and the Arizona Supreme Court granted the parties’ request to transfer the case to the Supreme Court because Ross was seeking the overruling of an opinion of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Pointing out that the constitutional guarantee of the right to recall public officers was an important issue during the Constitutional Convention of 1910, the Court reaffirmed its rulings in previous cases that because of the right’s importance, the Court will interpret constitutional and statutory provisions “governing recall liberally to protect the public’s right to recall its officials.” Since 1925, the standard applied by Court had been that, to be eligible for certification, recall petitions need only “substantially comply” with constitutional and statutory requirements. Ross invited the Court to abandon this standard and instead adopt the “strict compliance” standard that is applied to referendum petitions. The Court refused, distinguishing recall petitions from referendum petitions and reaffirming that recall petitions only need to substantially comply with legal requirements. Applying this “substantial compliance” standard to the Pearce recall petition, the Court rejected Ross’s arguments about alleged deficiencies in the oaths and affidavits signed by petition circulators.

Recall petitions signed by electors must include a general statement of the grounds for recalling the public official. The Court rejected Ross’s arguments that the recall petition’s statement was deficient because it did not state a specific ground for recall, explaining that Arizona’s recall provisions allowed voters to remove officials from office for any reason and that the statements of the grounds for recall could therefore be very general. The Court also rejected the argument that entire petition sheets should be rejected when they contained any individually deficient signatures. The Court rejected as moot Ross’s argument that the signatures of voters who were registered in another district should have been excluded because the number of such signatures, in this case, was too small to change whether the recall petition could be certified.

Chief Justice Berch authored the opinion; Vice Chief Justice Hurwitz and Justices Bales, Pelander, and Brutinel concurred.