Groups Sue Arizona Legislature Over Closed-Door ALEC Meetings

Then-Labor Secretary Alex Acosta gives a speech at the ALEC's 2017 annual conference in Denver.
The Arizona Legislature is being sued over the expected attendance of more than two dozen of its lawmakers at exclusive meetings this week held by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative group known for churning out model legislation benefiting corporate and other special interests.

Two nonprofit civil-rights groups, Puente and Mijente Support Committee, and three Arizona residents — Jamil Mazen, Jamaar Williams, and Jacinta Gonzalez — filed their complaint in Maricopa County Superior Court this  morning, the same day a three-day ALEC Summit is scheduled to begin in Scottsdale.

They are represented by the People's Law Firm, in Phoenix, and the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

The suit alleges that the Scottsdale meetings are expected to violate Arizona's Open Meeting Law, which requires meetings of any public entity to be available to the public, so that anybody who wants to can attend or listen. State law defines a "meeting" as a gathering that includes "a quorum of the members of a public body."

Enough Arizona legislators will be attending the conference to comprise a quora of five legislative committees, the complaint argues, but those discussions will happen behind closed doors, "without public understanding of the ultimate origins of and influence upon the legislation."

The complaint likened ALEC's summit in Scottsdale to a black box — "secretive, closed-door legislative planning sessions aimed at producing legislation that will impact all Arizonans" that "subvert[s] the long-established right of the public to observe the legislative process and understand what interests are influencing it."


The ALEC Summit holds "secretive, closed-door legislative planning sessions aimed at producing legislation that will impact all Arizonans." — Complaint filed against Arizona Legislature

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he plaintiffs are asking a judge to declare that the quora of lawmakers attending the Scottsdale summit violates the Open Meeting Law and that any "model bills" drafted and submitted to the Arizona Legislature be subject to that law, so that any materials or records from those summits be available under Arizona public records law.

Twenty-six Arizona legislators, all of them Republicans, are known ALEC members, the complaint pointed out, naming all of the lawmakers who attended the group's annual meeting in Austin in August.

"This is a politically-driven and legally meritless lawsuit brought by far-left activists," said Andrew Wilder, spokesperson for the Republican caucus of the State House. "House members of both parties can and regularly do attend a wide variety of policy conferences."

A spokesperson for Arizona Senate Republicans did not immediately respond to a request.

Those attending lawmakers comprised quora — the minimum number of people present to make a meeting valid — of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee (four of seven committee members attended the ALEC conference in Austin), the Senate Water and Agriculture Committee (four of seven), the House Appropriations Committee (six of eleven), the House Federal Relations Committee (four of seven) and the House Health and Human Services Committee (five of nine).

It is not confirmed whether those same legislators, or others, plan to attend the ALEC summit in Scottsdale, but the complaint stated that based on past meetings and "general ALEC practice," all 26 of those state senators and representatives would be there.

During the summit, the complaint states, those legislators would "discuss, propose and deliberate on [a] number of 'model bills' that will impact public policy and likely be introduced in the Arizona State legislature." Such meetings "will violate the basic principles of transparency and accountability that the Open Meeting Law was enacted to protect."

In the past, bills including the notorious immigration law SB 1070 originated from these types of ALEC conferences, the complaint stated. "Lack of oversight and transparency has previously led to the promulgation of harmful laws and practices drafted and deliberated in secret," it added.

The case treads on speculative ground, given that the complaint does not provide a definitive list of which Arizona legislators are attending the ALEC summit, which hasn't happened yet.

Its supporters say that the very uncertainty and lack of clarity about who is at ALEC and what they are doing is precisely why the lawsuit is necessary.

"At the heart of this is, we just don't know, and we need to know," Aya Saed, a fellow with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Phoenix New Times following a press conference in Phoenix announcing the lawsuit.

In the short term, the groups want a judge to declare that the ALEC summit, its meetings, and proceedings are subject to open meeting and public records laws — a tall order, with the summit launching this evening.

In the long term, they hope their case will make future ALEC meetings open to the same transparency laws, while also serving as a warning to legislators, and not just in Arizona, that people are paying attention to their activities, even those behind closed doors.

"This is really just the beginning," Saed said.

During the press conference, she described the lawsuit as "shifting the burden of proof." Afterward, she elaborated, noting that evidence strongly points to the fact that Arizona lawmakers are indeed privately gathering and discussing legislation behind closed doors.

"It's now on them to prove that that's not what happening," she told New Times

click to enlarge Civil rights groups suing the Arizona Legislature gather the morning of December 4, 2019, ahead of a press conference announcing their lawsuit. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Civil rights groups suing the Arizona Legislature gather the morning of December 4, 2019, ahead of a press conference announcing their lawsuit.
Elizabeth Whitman
The groups have not filed similar suits in any other state, Saed said. They chose Arizona because it seemed like "a hotbed of activity for ALEC," she said. She said she did not know how Arizona's ALEC membership of some two dozen legislators compared with membership proportions in other states, but described 26 as "high."

The complaint specified how each of the plaintiffs had in some way been affected by the operations of ALEC. In Arizona, its model bills have inspired or become laws that have deeply and disproportionately affected communities of color, according to a report released yesterday by the progressive legal group Center for Constitutional Rights.

Puente, the human rights organization led by recently elected Phoenix City Council Member Carlos Garcia, has long fought SB 1070, which, the complaint said, was "reportedly drafted at an ALEC conference in December 2009 by a participating Arizona state senator."

Today, Arizona has the highest rate of Latino imprisonment in the country. (The state is also home to the country's fourth highest percentage of Latinos, behind New Mexico, Texas, and California.)

"It's become clear that hunting and trapping has become a serious problem," Jamaar Williams, a plaintiff who is member of the metro Phoenix chapter of Black Lives Matter, said during today's press conference.

Ignoring the public and conducting legislative business in secret — just the way ALEC's summit will be held in the coming days — helped create this problem, Williams added. He cited criminal justice laws that cater to private prison corporations and include minimum sentencing laws.

Another plaintiff, Jameel Mazen, is an organizer with the Arizona Palestinian Solidarity Alliance, which supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, a form of economic protest against alleged human rights violations committed by Israel.

In 2016, the Arizona Legislature passed, and Governor Doug Ducey signed, a bill barring anyone doing business with Arizona from any participating in the BDS movement. ALEC played "an integral role" in the passage of that bill, the complaint stated, noting that HB 2617 was "nearly identical" to legislation drafted at ALEC meetings and passed in other states.

Arizona's anti-BDS law was later found to have violated the First Amendment. Nevertheless, it was modified earlier this year with the passage of another bill that limited the law's applicability to those with at least $100,000 contracts with the state of Arizona.