Arizona high court to consider case blocking school mask ban
PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that found new laws banning schools from requiring masks and a series of other measures were unconstitutional.
The high court decision came two days after the justices turned down Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s request that the provisions in state budget legislation be allowed to take effect.
The laws will remain blocked until the court hears the case and issues a ruling. The court set arguments for Nov. 2 after agreeing to Brnovich’s request to bypass the Court of Appeals.
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. She sided with education groups that argued 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 K-12 public schools to continue requiring students to wear face masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 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. The districts account for about a third of the 930,000 Arizona students who attend traditional public district schools.
Arizona cities and counties can also enact mask requirements and other COVID-19 rules that would have been blocked by the budget bills.
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 the stripping of the Democratic secretary of state of her duty to defend election laws.
Brnovich had 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.
Attorneys for the group of education advocates that sued, including the Arizona School Boards Association, had urged the high court to set aside the attorney general’s request for a rapid ruling.
“The trial court relied on well-settled precedent and properly ruled that each of the challenged laws was passed in violation of the constitution,” their filing said.
If the Supreme Court upholds Cooper’s decision, it will have far-reaching ramifications for the Legislature. Republicans who control the Senate and House have long ignored the constitutional requirement that budget bills deal only with spending items. Lawmakers have packed them with policy items, and this year majority Republicans were especially aggressive.
A spokesman for Ducey, C.J. Karamargin, on Monday called Cooper’s ruling “clearly an example of judicial overreach.”