State ex rel. Brnovich v. City of Tucson – 8/17/2017

September 6, 2017

Arizona Supreme Court holds that (1) a law permitting legislators to require Attorney General to investigate and litigate a municipality’s alleged violation of state law is constitutional, and (2) a generally applicable state statute regarding disposal of firearms supersedes local ordinance regarding disposal of firearms.

The City of Tucson is a charter city that is invested with inherent powers under the Arizona Constitution.  The City enacted a local ordinance allowing for the destruction of unclaimed and forfeited firearms.  Subsequently, the Arizona legislature enacted a statute explicitly prohibiting the destruction of firearms by government entities, including cities.  The legislature also enacted a statutory scheme authorizing a member of the legislature to require the Attorney General to investigate local ordinances that the legislator alleges violate state law, to withhold state funds from the municipality if the Attorney General concludes there is a violation of state law, and to file a special action in the Supreme Court if the Attorney General determines there may be a violation.  The Attorney General was asked to investigate the City’s gun disposal ordinance, determined it violated state law, and filed a special action before the Supreme Court.  The City subsequently filed an action in Pima County Superior Court, seeking an injunction against the implementation of the Arizona statute prohibiting gun disposal as unconstitutional in light of charter city authority granted under the Arizona Constitution.

The Court accepted special action jurisdiction over the Attorney General’s complaint, upheld the new statutory scheme as constitutional, and on the merits concluded that the state statute superseded the City’s ordinance.  Authorizing a state legislator to compel an Attorney General investigation of state law violations does not violate the separation of powers doctrine because the Attorney General retains discretion over the investigation and special action and the Court retains the authority to determine the validity of the local ordinance.  The Court also held that the statute confers mandatory jurisdiction on the Supreme Court.

Turning to the local ordinance at issue, the Court reasoned that it was superseded by state statute because there was a direct conflict between the ordinance, which authorized the destruction of firearms, and the statute, which prohibited that destruction.  Charter city authority permits conflicting legislation on matters of strictly local concern, namely local elections and the disposal of city real estate.  But when a state law concerns matters of statewide concern, the state law supersedes and controls over the conflicting local law.  The Court concluded that the state law at issue concerns topics of a statewide concern, including, among other things, the use of the police power through the regulation of firearms, the regulation of police conduct, and the regulation of property confiscated through civil forfeiture.

Concurring in the result, Justice Bolick took a narrower view of charter city authority, urging that any conflict between a state statute and local ordinance should be resolved in favor of the state statute.

Justice Pelander authored the opinion; Chief Justice Bales, Justices Brutinel and Timmer joined in the opinion; Justice Bolick concurred in part and in the result; Justice Gould concurred in part and in the result and was joined by Justices Bolick and Lopez.