State ex rel. Brnovich v. City of Tucson – 4/14/2021

May 12, 2021

Arizona Supreme Court holds that cities, not the state, may decide whether municipal elections are held on the same cycle as statewide elections.

The City of Tucson’s charter requires municipal election dates to be off-cycle (that is, on a different schedule) from statewide and national elections.  Accordingly, the City chose off-cycle dates for the 2021 election of three city council members.  The Arizona Attorney General filed a special action petition to determine whether the City’s action violates A.R.S. § 16-204.01, which requires charter cities to consolidate local election dates with state and national elections when voter turnout for the former drops below a certain threshold, as the City’s had.

The Supreme Court held that § 16-204.01 was unconstitutional as applied where a city’s charter authorizes the city to decide whether to hold municipal elections on cycle or off cycle.  The Court’s reasoning turned on the language and intent of the Arizona Constitution’s “home rule charter” provision, article 13, § 2, which protects charter city autonomy from state interference in matters of purely municipal concern but recognizes state authority where statewide interests are affected. 

A charter city’s decision to hold off-cycle municipal elections, the Court concluded, is a purely municipal concern that implicates city autonomy because it affects local government structure and policy.  And, even if that was not the case, the state has no interest in the issue. The state interests posed by the Attorney General—protection of voter rights and election integrity—are not affected by a city’s decision to hold local elections off-cycle.  The Court caveated that the method and manner in which municipal elections are conducted may fall within state interest in some contexts, but not so here.

In a lone dissent, Justice Bolick argued for a constitutional interpretation that would find state law preempts city charters, urging that past decision supporting the majority opinion were wrongly decided.

Vice Chief Justice Timmer authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Brutinel and Justices Lopez, Beene, and Montgomery joined.  Justice Bolick dissented.