Arizona Supreme Court allows school mask ban ruling to stand

The Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday declined to immediately reinstate a series of new laws that include measures which block schools from requiring masks and restrict the power of local governments to impose COVID-19 restrictions.

The high court turned down Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s request that the provisions in three state budget bills and an entire budget bill be allowed to take effect. Instead, the court set a briefing schedule for it to consider Brnovich’s request to bypass the Court of Appeals and hear the case directly.

Mask mandate ban was ruled unconstitutional

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper issued a ruling Monday blocking the school mask ban and a host of other provisions in the state budget package from taking effect as scheduled on Wednesday.

Related: Arizona judge rules school mask mandate ban unconstitutional

She sided with education groups that had argued that the bills were packed with policy items unrelated to the budget and violated the state constitution’s requirement that subjects be related and expressed in the title of bills.

Cooper’s ruling cleared the way for Arizona cities and counties to enact mask requirements and other COVID-19 rules that would have been blocked by the budget bills. At least 29 of the state’s public school districts issued mask mandates before the laws were set to take effect and some immediately extended them after Cooper’s ruling.

Republican opponents of school mask requirements and local COVID-19 restrictions are powerless to immediately pass new versions of the laws even if GOP Gov. Doug Ducey calls a special legislative session. That’s because there are two GOP vacancies in the closely-split House and Republicans no longer have the votes to pass bills without Democratic support.

Cooper’s sweeping ruling also struck non-virus provisions that were slipped into the state budget and an entire budget measure that had served as a vehicle for a conservative policy wish list. They included a required investigation of social media companies and stripping the Democratic secretary of state of her duty to defend election laws.

Brnovich urged the court to strike down Cooper’s ruling, saying the groups that sued had no legal right to challenge the bills, that the issue was political and outside the courts’ jurisdiction and that Cooper wrongfully concluded they violated the constitution.

"The trial court’s ruling carries significant implications for the operation of state government and the State will continue to suffer harm if the trial court’s ruling is not swiftly overturned, allowing the challenged provisions to immediately go into effect," attorney Patrick Irvine wrote in his request for the Supreme Court to directly take the appeal.

Cooper had rejected similar arguments.

Brnovich also asked Cooper and the state Court of Appeals to allows the laws to go into effect, but both rejected the requests on Wednesday.

In Arizona, a coalition of educators and allies sued to challenge laws prohibiting public school districts from imposing mask requirements, colleges from requiring vaccinations for students, and communities from establishing vaccine passports for entry into large events, businesses and other places. It also challenged a broad invalidation of any other local virus measure.

The coalition argued a large number of Arizona children would get sick with COVID-19 if the new laws weren’t blocked. The restrictions had been written into state budget measures that were passed near the end of the legislative session in June with only support from majority Republicans.

"It was very hypocritical because quite frankly, we hear the Governor talk a lot about how the federal government needs to stay out of some Arizona policies, so this is clearly a political decision and had nothing to do with what was right and wrong. He just wanted to be in control of something," said Marisol Garcia with the Arizona Education Association.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, C.J. Karamargin, on Monday called Cooper’s ruling "clearly an example of judicial overreach."

Gov. Ducey himself has responded to the court's decision.

"Now we have a judge making a ruling, it’s going to be decided in the court, and I’ll stand by whatever the decision is, but it’s going to be appealed," said Gov. Ducey.

Ruling can have far-reaching consequences

Cooper’s decision has far-reaching ramifications for the Legislature, which has long ignored the constitutional requirement that budget bills only deal with spending items. Lawmakers have packed with them policy items, and this year majority Republicans were especially aggressive.

Related: Some districts renew mask policy following court ruling that could have major impact on Arizona politics

"I do think what this ruling signifies is the single subject rule is going to be enforced, going forward," said former congressional staffer Roy Herrera. "That could change the way the legislature passes things at the end. It could make passing a budget more difficult."

"Some of the issues that were raised in this case, I don’t know if they could’ve gotten 16 votes in the Senate and 31 in the House, much less a gubernatorial signature. Some of this stuff may have only squeaked by because it was in the budget," said political strategist Barrett Marson.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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