- Associated Press - Thursday, July 13, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - After two days of legal sparring over the constitutionality of a new law, a judge will now decide whether the Arizona Legislature overstepped its bounds by passing a law this spring tightening the standard for challenges to citizen initiatives.

Attorneys representing advocacy groups challenging the law and state lawyers defending it Thursday urged Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Sherry Stephens to see it their way.

Attorney Andrew Gaona, who represents advocacy groups and others who have pushed citizen initiatives, argued the Legislature overstepped its bounds when it passed the law making it easier to challenge initiatives. He also said lawmakers outlined their unconstitutional motives when they included as a reason their inability to change voter-approved laws.

“This is the rare case where … the Arizona Legislature has both enacted an unconstitutional statute and expressly declared its unconstitutional purpose at the same time,” Gaona said. “There’s no guesswork here.”

That argument was countered by Solicitor General Dominic Draye. He told Judge Sherry Stephens the Legislature was well within its rights to overrule decades of state Supreme Court precedent holding initiative efforts to lower legal standards.

“Lawmaking by the court is legitimate,” Draye said. “But it is a placeholder until the Legislature enters the conversation.”

The new law changes the legal standard for review for qualifying petitions and the initiatives they aim to ask voters to enact into law. The decades-old standard is “substantial compliance,” which means courts will generally interpret issues with petition signatures or other flaws in favor of the initiative backers. The new law would have courts look at problems using a “strict compliance” standard, which offers little leeway for problems commonly seen when thousands of petitions are circulated.

Stephens said she will rule by Aug. 4, four days before the law officially takes effect. An appeal is likely from whichever side loses.

The case challenges the constitutionality of one of two laws targeting initiatives pushed through the Legislature this year by Republicans and signed into law by GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. They came after years of Republican angst about voter-approved laws that tie their hands, with a minimum wage increase approved in November the final straw.

Separately, opponents are collecting signatures to block both laws from taking effect. But the effort to collect about 75,000 valid signatures using paid circulators has now been suspended, said Joe Yuhas, who is running the effort.

“We have limited resources, so in order to absorb both the cost of litigation as well as the petition effort we’ve suspended the paid drive,” Yuhas said. “Our volunteer effort continues.”

Opponents would have to turn in the qualifying signatures by Aug. 8 to block the laws until a vote in the November 2018 election.

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