Suit with national implications says lawmakers violated Arizona’s Open Meeting Law when they attended closed corporate conference
February 15, 2022, Phoenix, AZ – Today, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that a coalition of grassroots organizations and legal groups may pursue their lawsuit against 26 Arizona lawmakers who attended closed meetings of the corporate-led American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The court said the legislature cannot exempt itself from its own Open Meeting Law, rejected all of the defendants’ other arguments for dismissal, and sent the case back to the trial court.
The suit was filed in 2019 by Puente, Mijente, Arizona Palestine Solidarity Alliance, Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the People's Law Firm. Prior to ALEC’s national policy summit in Scottsdale, AZ, these groups asked the court to declare the legislator’s attendance unlawful, arguing that because the 26 lawmakers composed quorums of committees, the closed-door deliberations and drafting of laws amounted to secret decision-making by a public body, in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law. The suit further asks for all notes and materials from the meetings to be made accessible to the public and for legislators to be enjoined from attending these meetings in the future.
“Today's victory confirms what communities have been saying for years – these corporate lawmakers must follow the law and let people enter the rooms when people are making decisions about the future of our lives,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign organizer at Mijente. “ALEC has continuously caused tremendous harm to many communities – lawmakers should be on notice that the days when they can make backdoor deals without us knowing are done.”
ALEC provides a ‘pay-to-play’ membership system, in which its corporate members pay high fees in return for closed-door meetings with lawmakers to deliberate, draft, and vote on “model bills,” which are later introduced by ALEC-affiliated state lawmakers across the country. ALEC boasts that approximately one third of all state lawmakers are members. They are required to sign “loyalty oaths” to “put the interests of [ALEC] first.” Between 2010 and 2018, ALEC’s “model bills” were introduced nearly 2,900 times, and more than 600 became law.
Advocates point out that marginalized communities, particularly communities of color, have been disproportionately harmed by laws produced by ALEC. These include Stand Your Ground laws, voter ID laws, legislation targeting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement supporting Palestinian human rights, and “critical infrastructure” laws that criminalize protests by Indigenous people and other activists against oil and gas companies.
At ALEC’s 2009 meeting, anti-immigrant former state senator Russell Pearce introduced to ALEC members what would later become Arizona’s infamous SB 1070. The law granted authority to law enforcement to racially profile Latinx people in the state. Similar laws were soon adopted in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, Alabama, and South Carolina.
"For decades, ALEC and the captured lawmakers it associates with have corrupted the lawmaking process to advance a capitalist white supremacist agenda that has attacked Latinx, Black, Brown, Queer, and many other communities all across the U.S. without facing any form of accountability. Today marks the turning of the tide,” said Natally Cruz, interim Director of Puente Human Rights Movement. “Today, we remember all the people in Arizona profiled and targeted as a result of ALEC's SB1070 law as we commit to continuing this march for justice for them and all people everywhere targeted by ALEC and its captured lawmakers.”
“Today’s decision reaffirms the foundational principle that the judiciary acts as a check on the legislative branch, a duty that it cannot abdicate,” remarked Center for Constitutional Rights Staff Attorney Angelo Guisado. “The Legislature is simply not above the law.”
Secret ALEC meetings have proceeded unhindered for years, yet in Arizona the coalition of advocates and activists were able to turn to the Open Meeting Law, which states that, “[a]ll meetings of any public body shall be public meetings and all persons so desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings.” Further, “[a]ll legal action of public bodies shall occur during a public meeting.”
In 2020, the trial court dismissed the case, saying it would be a “nonjusticiable political question” to interfere with how the legislature handles its day-to-day affairs, including whether meetings are public. Today, the state Court of Appeals rejected that argument, and now the case will move forward.
“Open-meetings laws are aptly nicknamed ‘Sunshine Laws’ because they expose the law-making process to the light of day,” said Heather Hamel Robles of The People’s Law Firm. “We are thrilled that the Court of Appeals decided that Arizona legislators can no longer keep Arizonans in the dark.”
For more information on today’s lawsuit, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
For more information on ALEC’s role in crafting and enacting legislation that has significantly and disproportionately harmed communities of color, read the report, “ALEC Attacks: How evangelicals and corporations captured state lawmaking to safeguard white supremacy and corporate power.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.