Arizona Supreme Court rules in favor of open-primary initiative

Sep 7, 2012, 8:20 AM | Updated: 8:21 am

PHOENIX — Ending a lengthy legal battle, the Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for voters to decide in November whether to switch from partisan to open primaries for state offices.

“Obviously, we are elated,” said former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson, a leader of the Open Government Committee. “We’re very excited to see that this is going to be moving forward, and now we have to make our case to the public.”

The committee is behind a ballot measure that would transform Arizona’s primary system. Instead of a closed primary system in which each party nominates candidates to go head-to-head in the general election, the proposed open primary would have the top two vote-getters — regardless of party affiliation — advancing to the general election.

Opponents organized around the group Save Our Vote challenged whether Johnson’s group had gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot, alleging that some signatures were gathered improperly.

After a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled last week in favor of the Open Government Committee, opponents asked the Supreme Court for more time to make their case.

Save Our Vote’s primary contention was that the Superior Court “abused its discretion” by only allowing each group two hours to present evidence and declining a request for additional time.

In the decision, written by Vice Chief Justice Scott Bales, the court ruled that the Superior Court judge acted properly.

“SOV did not object to the court’s allocating four hours for the hearing or dividing the time equally,” Bales wrote. “During the hearing itself, when SOV requested additional time to present more evidence, it neither made an offer of proof regarding the proposed evidence nor argued that adhering to the previously established schedule would be unfairly prejudicial.”

The ruling came one day before the final deadline to print the November ballots.

Joe Yuhas, general consultant to the Open Government Campaign, said that he was surprised not necessarily by the decision but rather the process that led to it.

“If there were any surprises at all, it’s the fact that we had to go to court on five different occasions simply to protect the rights of Arizona voters to vote on the measure,” he said.

Mike Liburdi, the attorney who represented Save Our Vote, was convinced that the time element was a major factor in the ruling.

“They had a difficult situation and they had to make a decision,” Liburdi said. “And they made what they think is the best decision under the circumstances.”

The Supreme Court had originally ruled in August that the initiative was constitutional, lifting an injunction placed on it by another Superior Court judge.

Johnson touted Thursday’s decision as a victory for citizens’ power to hold government accountable.

“What the Supreme Court, at least in our particular case, has now re-affirmed twice is that that power should not be subordinate to the power of the people who are in office,” he said.

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Arizona Supreme Court rules in favor of open-primary initiative