Puente v. Ariz. State Legislature

Decision Date30 December 2022
Docket NumberCV-22-0069-PR
Citation86 Arizona Cases Digest 29,521 P.3d 1007
Parties PUENTE, an Arizona nonprofit corporation; Mijente Support Committee, an Arizona nonprofit corporation; Jamil Naser, an individual; Jamaar Williams, an individual, and Jacinta Gonzalez, an individual, Plaintiffs/Appellants, v. ARIZONA STATE LEGISLATURE, Defendant/Appellee.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Angelo Guisado (argued), The Center for Constitutional Rights, New York, NY; Stephen D. Benedetto and Heather Hamel, The People's Law Firm PLC, Phoenix, Attorneys for Puente, et al.

Kory Langhofer (argued), Thomas Basile, Statecraft, Phoenix, Attorneys for Arizona State Legislature

VICE CHIEF JUSTICE TIMMER authored the Opinion of the Court, in which JUSTICES LOPEZ, BEENE, MONTGOMERY, and KING joined.*

VICE CHIEF JUSTICE TIMMER, Opinion of the Court:

¶1 Arizona's Open Meeting Law ("OML") requires legislative committees to conduct meetings publicly so "all persons so desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings" and "legal action of public bodies [occurs only] during a public meeting." A.R.S. §§ 38-431(6), -431.01(A). The determinative issue before us is whether the political question doctrine prohibits courts from adjudicating complaints that legislative committees met in violation of the OML. We hold that such complaints raise nonjusticiable political questions.


¶2 On December 4, 2019, nonprofit organizations and individuals (collectively, "Puente") filed a complaint against the Arizona Legislature seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Puente alleged that twenty-six Republican legislators, who comprised quorums for five legislative committees, were threatening to violate the OML by attending a three-day summit in Scottsdale hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council ("ALEC").

¶3 ALEC is a "nonpartisan, voluntary membership organization of state legislators dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism." About ALEC , ALEC, https://alec.org/about/ (last visited Dec. 22, 2022). According to Puente, ALEC summits draw state legislators and private participants from the entire country and assemble, in part, so attendees can discuss and draft "model bills" for introduction in state legislatures. These sessions are closed to the general public.

¶4 Puente claimed the Legislature would violate the OML if legislative committee quorums attended the Scottsdale summit and secretly discussed, proposed, or deliberated ALEC model bills in what Puente claimed would be "legislative planning sessions." Among other things, Puente asked the superior court to declare that the legislators’ planned attendance at the Scottsdale summit would violate the OML and to enjoin legislative committee quorums from attending future ALEC summits absent compliance with the OML.

¶5 The superior court granted the Legislature's motion to dismiss the complaint for failing to state a viable claim. See Ariz. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The court ruled that whether the Legislature complied with the OML is a nonjusticiable political question. The court of appeals disagreed, vacated the judgment, and remanded for further proceedings. Puente v. Ariz. State Legislature , 252 Ariz. 571, 572–73 ¶ 1, 506 P.3d 800, 801-02 (App. 2022). We granted the Legislature's petition for review because the case raises important issues that are capable of repetition. We have jurisdiction under article 6, section 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution.

I. General Principles

¶6 We review the superior court's judgment dismissing the complaint de novo. See Coleman v. City of Mesa , 230 Ariz. 352, 355 ¶ 7, 284 P.3d 863, 866 (2012). Likewise, we interpret the Arizona Constitution de novo. See State v. Hansen , 215 Ariz. 287, 289 ¶ 6, 160 P.3d 166, 168 (2007).

¶7 The political question doctrine provides that a dispute is a nonjusticiable political question if there is "a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the issue to a coordinate political department; or a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it." Kromko v. Ariz. Bd. of Regents , 216 Ariz. 190, 192 ¶ 11, 165 P.3d 168, 170 (2007) (quoting Nixon v. United States , 506 U.S. 224, 228, 113 S.Ct. 732, 122 L.Ed.2d 1 (1993) ). The doctrine stems from our constitutional commitment to separation of powers and acknowledges that some decisions are entrusted to other branches of government. See id. at 192–93 ¶ 12, 165 P.3d at 170-01; see also Ariz. Const. art. 3.

¶8 Although the political question inquiry is sometimes framed in the disjunctive, Kromko , 216 Ariz. at 192 ¶ 11, 165 P.3d at 170, the elements are interdependent. See, e.g. , Ariz. Indep. Redistricting Comm'n v. Brewer , 229 Ariz. 347, 351 ¶ 18, 275 P.3d 1267, 1271 (2012) ; see also Forty-Seventh Legislature v. Napolitano , 213 Ariz. 482, 485 ¶ 7, 143 P.3d 1023, 1026 (2006) (phrasing the inquiry in the conjunctive). "[T]he fact that the Constitution assigns a power to another branch only begins the inquiry," which continues with a court determining whether judicially discoverable and manageable standards of review exist. Brewer , 229 Ariz. at 351 ¶ 17, 275 P.3d at 1271 ; see also Kromko , 216 Ariz. at 193 ¶¶ 13–14, 165 P.3d at 171. The lack of such standards "may strengthen the conclusion that there is a textually demonstrable commitment to a coordinate branch." Kromko , 216 Ariz. at 193 ¶ 14, 165 P.3d at 171 (quoting Nixon , 506 U.S. at 228–29, 113 S.Ct. 732 ). Conversely, their existence weakens the significance of a textually demonstrable commitment to another branch. Brewer , 229 Ariz. at 351 ¶ 18, 275 P.3d at 1271. The ultimate question is whether the Constitution places scrutiny of an issue beyond judicial authority. See Ariz. Const. art. 3 (dividing the powers of government into the legislative, the executive, and the judicial departments and providing that "no one of such departments shall exercise the powers properly belonging to either of the others"); see also Nixon , 506 U.S. at 240, 113 S.Ct. 732 (White, J., concurring) (noting "the issue in the political question doctrine is not whether the constitutional text commits exclusive responsibility for a particular governmental function to one of the political branches" but instead is "whether the Constitution has given one of the political branches final responsibility for interpreting the scope and nature of such a power").

¶9 It is worth noting that despite its suggestive name, the political question doctrine is not triggered simply because a lawsuit involves politically charged issues. Brewer , 229 Ariz. at 351 ¶ 16, 275 P.3d at 1271 ("That a lawsuit involves ‘constitutional issues with significant political overtones,’ however, ‘does not automatically invoke the political question doctrine.’ " (quoting INS v. Chadha , 462 U.S. 919, 942–43, 103 S.Ct. 2764, 77 L.Ed.2d 317 (1983) )). Courts are responsible for resolving challenges to another branch's constitutional authority "[even when] the issues have political implications." Id . (quoting Zivotofsky v. Clinton , 566 U.S. 189, 196, 132 S.Ct. 1421, 182 L.Ed.2d 423 (2012) ); see also Baker v. Carr , 369 U.S. 186, 217, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962) ("The doctrine of which we treat is one of ‘political questions,’ not one of ‘political cases.’ The courts cannot reject as ‘no law suit’ a bona fide controversy as to whether some action denominated ‘political’ exceeds constitutional authority."); Ariz. Sch. Bds. Ass'n v. State , 252 Ariz. 219, 225 ¶ 21, 501 P.3d 731, 737 (2022) (rejecting the argument that "only the legislature may determine whether its bills satisfy constitutional requirements").

II. Application

¶10 The parties do not dispute that the Arizona Constitution textually commits to the legislative houses the authority to determine their own internal procedures. The constitution provides, in relevant part, as follows:

Section 8. Each house, when assembled, shall choose its own officers, judge of the election and qualification of its own members, and determine its own rules of procedure .
Section 9. The majority of the members of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may meet , adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members, in such manner and under such penalties as each house may prescribe . Neither house shall adjourn for more than three days, nor to any place other than that in which it may be sitting, without the consent of the other.

Ariz. Const. art. 4, pt. 2, §§ 8 – 9 (emphasis added).

¶11 The Legislature argues the above-emphasized language commits the formulation and enforcement of internal procedures exclusively to each legislative house's discretion, and judicially manageable standards do not exist for a court to review the exercise of that discretion. Puente characterizes these provisions as granting the legislative houses only intra-branch authority to develop procedural rules, which does not displace the judiciary's authority to determine whether legislative conduct violates external procedural constraints, like the OML. It points out that the Legislature subjected itself to the OML, see §§ 38-431(6), -431.01(A), and has not promulgated any inconsistent procedural rules. Because Puente does not ask the superior court to interfere with the legislative houses’ rulemaking authority but seeks only to compel compliance with the OML, Puente asserts its lawsuit is justiciable. See Puente , 252 Ariz. at 575 ¶ 15, 506 P.3d at 804 (agreeing that because the Legislature "expressly impose[d] open-meeting requirements on itself, [it] implicitly and necessarily acceded to judicial enforcement of those requirements, even while it retained its authority under the Constitution to adopt other procedural rules" (emphasis omitted)).

¶12 For several reasons, we agree with the Legislature. First, the constitutional commitment of authority for the legislative houses to determine their own procedural rules...

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