PHOENIX — A judge has rejected an offer by Attorney General Mark Brnovich to force Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to produce an election procedures manual to her liking.
In a ruling late Friday, Yavapai County Superior Court Judge John Napper said Democrat Hobbs “properly exercised her discretion” in proposing rules for this year’s election. He said she provided the biennial manual by the Oct. 1 deadline to Brnovich and Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, for their legally required review.
But Napper said Brnovich, rather than negotiate the areas of difference he had with Hobbs, simply rejected the proposal and refused to negotiate with her.
Worse, the judge said, Brnovich did not explain how he came to the conclusion that what she put in the manual was beyond his authority or contrary to state law.
Instead, Brnovich waited until April — months after the playbook’s adoption deadline — to file a lawsuit against Hobbs. And even that lawsuit, Napper said, lacked a specific explanation of why he wanted the changes.
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The bottom line, the judge said, is that Brnovich’s inability to act sooner — or negotiate — convinced him to dismiss the attorney general’s complaint.
Friday’s decision is the latest in a series of public wrangles and lawsuits between Brnovich, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, and Hobbs, who hopes to be the Democratic nominee for governor.
Napper, in his four-page ruling, made it clear that he believed the attorney general was responsible for this latest dust.
He pointed out that Hobbs, in submitting the manual on Oct. 1, did so after consulting with election officials across the state.
The attorney general simply deleted provisions he didn’t like, Napper said.
“He simply said, ‘This proposed settlement is beyond the scope of the Secretary’s statutory authority or otherwise contravenes the purpose of any election law, and therefore cannot be approved,'” Napper said. Brnovich also said that some regulations are “arbitrary and capricious”.
The only thing is, Napper says, Brnovich “didn’t explain how he came to these conclusions.”
Napper said Hobbs then sent letters and offered to meet to discuss the issues and negotiate a playbook acceptable to her, Brnovich and Ducey, just as was done in 2019.
But there were no negotiations, the judge said, and the December 31 deadline has come and gone. It wasn’t until April that Brnovich, joined by the Yavapai County Republican Party, went to court and asked Napper to order Hobbs to produce what Brnovich calls a “legally compliant” manual.
But even then, the judge said, the attorney general has still not provided details of his legal objections.
Napper said that Hobbs, in preparing the new manual, had done nothing wrong – and pretty much everything was correct.
“It is undisputed that the secretary met with and consulted with each county board of supervisors or other election officials,” he wrote, and that she produced the manual after getting feedback. of each of them.
The judge said the manual also represented her policy decisions on a variety of issues ranging from early voting to the production, distribution, collection, counting, tabulation and storage of ballots.
“It is important to note that the draft Election Procedures Manual was supported by an overwhelming majority of Arizona election officials,” Napper wrote. “The AG has produced no evidence to the contrary.”
The judge acknowledged Brnovich’s arguments that the draft “has omitted or misinterpreted portions of statutes.” He said he also included what Hobbs considers “best practice recommendations” that weren’t appropriately labeled as such.
But none of this convinced Napper to declare that Hobbs had broken the law and should be ordered, as Brnovich had requested, to rewrite the manual.
“In a document totaling 296 pages, these shortcomings were limited,” he wrote. “The majority of the document conforms to the precepts of Arizona law’s election procedures manual.”
Napper acknowledged that, strictly speaking, the dispute — and his decision not to order Hobbs to redo the playbook as Brnovich wants — leaves county election officials without guidance they can rely on to organize this year’s election. . But the judge clarified who he holds responsible.
“(Brnovich’s) complaint was filed far too late for this to happen without disrupting the election that has already begun,” Napper wrote.
But the judge said there was a fallback position.
He noted that Hobbs had prepared a manual in 2019, as required. And that one was endorsed by both Brnovich and Ducey.
“Election officials are following the 2019 Election Procedures Manual while adhering to all changes since it was submitted,” Napper said. “As the last approved Election Procedures Manual, it currently remains the Election Procedures Manual for the Arizona Elections.”
Friday’s decision may not be the end of the fight.
In a prepared statement, Brnovich’s spokeswoman, Brittni Thomason, said her boss still maintains that the manual prepared by Hobbs is not legal and that Brnovich is “exploring all options” to secure what he feels is necessary. to ensure the integrity of the 2022 elections.
Thomason also said the delay in filing the playbook challenge until April was justified, at least in part because Hobbs filed a lawsuit against Brnovich and his office with the Arizona State Bar. Hobbs alleged that Brnovich violated ethical rules by representing his office and then taking a contrary position in court.
But that complaint was resolved in early February.
In a post on Twitter, Hobbs called Friday’s decision a “victory for the rule of law – and for Arizona voters.” She said the lawsuit was simply an attempt by Brnovich “to rewrite the election rules to suit his own political preferences.”