Judge dismisses Dem lawsuit challenging independent redistricting candidates

By: - December 7, 2020 12:48 pm

Democratic legislative leaders’ lawsuit to disqualify two of the five finalists for independent chair of the state’s next redistricting commission fell flat after a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the disputed applicants didn’t violate the criteria set out in the Arizona Constitution.

Judge Janice Crawford ruled on Friday that Thomas Loquvam, an attorney for the utility company EPCOR, does not violate the constitution’s prohibition on lobbyists serving on the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, and that Flagstaff gun store owner Robert Wilson meets the qualifications to serve as an independent.

Senate Minority Leader David Bradley, D-Tucson, and House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, won’t appeal Crawford’s dismissal of the case, according to their attorney, Jim Barton.

The dismissal of the case and the decision not to appeal paves the way for the selection of the fifth and final member or the IRC, an independent who will chair the commission as it draws the legislative and congressional districts that Arizona will use through 2030. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs must call a meeting of the two Democrats and two Republicans appointed to the commission by legislative leaders, and they will choose a chair by a majority vote.

Hobbs is unlikely to call the meeting until after the Electoral College meets on Dec. 14, spokeswoman Murphy Hebert told the Arizona Mirror.

Bradley and Fernandez sued the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, which vets and selects finalists to the IRC, to remove two potential chairmen whom Democrats view as hostile to their interests. 

Loquvam is a former attorney for Pinnacle West, the parent company of utility giant Arizona Public Service, which has spent millions in against Democratic candidates for the Corporation Commission in 2014 and 2016, though there’s no indication that Loquvam himself was involved in the political spending. 

APS secretly funded its 2014 campaign to elect friendly regulators by laundering the money through the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a conservative advocacy group. Loquvam is the brother of Jessica Pacheco, a former APS lobbyist who oversaw the company’s campaign activities.

Democrats are opposed to Wilson’s candidacy because he hosted an event for President Donald Trump’s campaign in the parking lot of his gun store, which occurred after he applied for the IRC, and because he hosted meet-and-greets for Republican candidates for Congress and the legislature.

The Arizona Constitution prohibits anyone who has been a “registered paid lobbyist” in the past three years from serving on the IRC. Bradley and Fernandez alleged that Loquvam violated that provision because he is registered to lobby the Corporation Commission on behalf of his employer, EPCOR.

The Attorney General’s Office advised the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments that Loquvam didn’t violate the lobbying ban because he’s not registered with the Secretary of State’s Office to lobby the legislature. The Corporation Commission’s lobbyist registration system isn’t required by law and didn’t exist at the time voters created the IRC through Proposition 106 in 2000.

“Interpreting the word lobbying as it was interpreted before the adoption of Proposition 106 is consistent with the analysis” in previous Arizona Supreme Court rulings on the subject, Crawford wrote in her ruling.

Loquvam has said his job requires him to register to lobby the Corporation Commission in order to speak with its members about EPCOR business, but that lobbying is a minor part of his job duties.

The case against Wilson was far shakier. Bradley and Fernandez argued that he wasn’t a true independent because of his alleged Republican leanings. But the Arizona Constitution doesn’t impose any restrictions on redistricting commissioners’ personal political beliefs or require them to be politically neutral in the case of independents. It only requires commissioners to be registered with the same party — or in the case of independents, with no political party — for at least three years prior to their appointment.

Crawford noted that Wilson met the voter registration requirement and rejected the Democratic lawmakers’ assertion that he’s a “sham independent” as legally irrelevant. Bradley and Fernandez didn’t dispute that and simply disregarded the clear language in the Arizona Constitution, the judge wrote.

“There is no requirement that Mr. Wilson avoid, limit, or restrict his political activities. Further, permitting such a challenge to a person’s voter registration would have a chilling effect on applicants to the AIRC and could result in an unfathomable increase in self-interested legislators challenging the qualifications of any nominee sent by the Commission that a particular legislator did not want appointed,” Crawford wrote.

In a joint statement, Bradley and Fernandez said it was “disappointing that the judge refused to look at evidence beyond the voter registration of Robert Wilson,” even though that’s the only legal criteria under the Arizona Constitution for Wilson to serve as an independent. 

“The purpose of the IRC is to be independent of partisan politics. That cannot be accomplished if the only unaffiliated member of the IRC is clearly partisan, like Robert Wilson. Or like Thomas Loquvam, who admitted he is a paid registered lobbyist with the Corporation Commission and therefore not qualified to serve in this role per the Arizona Constitution,” the Democratic leaders said.

Fernandez told the Mirror that Loquvam and Wilson are not true independents. She acknowledged that the case against Wilson was weaker than the one against Loquvam.

“We know that these people that are on the list to be independents … are not true independents. And I think the four members, the two Democrats and the two Republicans, should have true independents to choose from,” she said.

In addition to rejecting the allegations regarding Loquvam and Wilson, the judge ruled that Bradley and Fernandez lacked standing to sue.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann, who intervened in the case as defendants, declined to comment.

The independent chair serves as a critical swing vote on the IRC. If two Democrats and two Republicans deadlock along partisan lines, the chair breaks the tie. During the 2011-12 redistricting process, then-Chairwoman Colleen Mathis drew Republicans’ ire by routinely siding with her two Democratic colleagues on important 3-2 votes.

Given the Democrats’ opposition to Loquvam and Wilson, it seems unlikely that either of the two Democratic commissioners appointed by Bradley and Fernandez would agree to their appointment, though Fernandez told the Mirror that she won’t advise or encourage them to oppose the two independents.

The other three independent candidates are Megan Carollo, the owner a luxury floral boutique in Scottsdale; Erika Schupak Neuberg, a psychologist with a practice in Scottsdale who serves as a national board member for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; and Gregory Teesdale, an Oro Valley resident and former executive at venture capital companies.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”