Arizona Supreme Court Tells Sheriff Joe to Take a Hike; New Times Victory Upheld

By Sarah Fenske

Score another victory for New Times -- and Arizona's public records law.

On Tuesday, the Arizona Supreme Court rejected Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's request to revisit the appellate court decision which spanked his department for stalling on public records requests filed by this newspaper. The court declined to accept the case, without comment.

Here's the background. When Arpaio was last running for reelection in 2004, reporter John Dougherty made a series of records requests. But Arpaio's staff stalled and stonewalled -- in some cases, waiting more than 140 days to turn over the relevant documents. (By then, of course, the sheriff had held off his primary challenger -- and it should be noted that the records were only released after New Times filed its lawsuit.) Still, the trial court ruled that, since the documents were eventually released, the sheriff was in the clear.

The appeals court felt differently. In February, a three-judge panel found that Arpaio's staff had failed to "promptly furnish" the records -- and that, on its face, was an unlawful denial. The court added that Arpaio's department could well be on the hook for this paper's legal fees, and sent the case back to the lower court to deal with that issue.

But Arpaio wouldn't take no for an answer. His crackerjack legal team instead decided to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars!

Now that the Court has refused to let Sheriff Joe off the hook, the case goes back to district court. If the judge there finds that any of the sheriff's denials were "in bad faith, arbitrary, or capricious," the sheriff will be forced to pay New Times' legal bills.

I'm sorry to report that, unfortunately, it's not Arpaio who actually foots the bill; it's us, the taxpayers. Despite Arpaio costing us $43 million and counting in jury verdicts, settlements, and insurance premiums, he remains in office and you and I remain on the hook for his shenanigans.

But at least we get a good precedent out of this one instead of another dead inmate, right?

Here's what New Times' attorney, Steve Suskin, had to say about the decision.

"The Sheriff's hypocrisy and disregard for the law is borne out by how his media relations staff mishandled this case. The Arizona Public Records Law, so vital for the public to know what its elected officials are up to, was intentionally ignored and violated," Suskin says. "The Arizona Court of Appeals and now the Arizona Supreme Court affirm the rule of law and not of men. Unfortunately, the taxpayers in Maricopa County will again likely be forced to pick up the tab for Joe Arpaio's bad management and vindictive actions."

You might want to keep that in mind on November 4.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske