A case before the Arizona Supreme Court centers around whether Tucson has the right to disobey a state law forbidding the destruction of guns — and whether the state can withhold revenue because of it. Wochit
The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that Tucson does not have the right to ignore state law when it comes to what they do with confiscated weapons.
The ruling broadly affects the state’s 19 charter cities, who have argued that the Arizona Constitution gives them control over local matters, regardless of state law. The court narrowed that control, saying it doesn’t apply to police matters such as weapons.
The ruling sidestepped Tucson’s attempt to overturn a law that allows the Legislature to punish cities by withholding millions of dollars in aid if local officials enact policies that conflict with state law.
The court ruled that specific aspects of the law were constitutional, but did not address the constitutionality of the law as a whole.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich called the ruling “monumental.”
“The Supreme Court did a great job of clarifying the parameters of when state law can trump local ordinances,” he said, adding that the opinion confirms local control of election and real estate issues, but state authority over most other issues.
READ: The ruling
Arizona’s highest court issued its ruling Thursday morning in a case in which the state alleges Tucson’s 12-year-old gun ordinance conflicts with a 2016 state law that requires cities, towns and counties to assure their local ordinances comply with state law.
Tucson’s ordinance allows for the destruction of confiscated guns. State law requires them to be sold.
Over the past five years, Tucson has destroyed about 4,800 unclaimed or forfeited guns, according to court records.
Under the 2016 law, Senate Bill 1487, if the Attorney General’s Office finds a local ordinance is in conflict and the local government refuses to fix it, the state can withhold revenue from the local entity. For some communities, that state-shared revenue constitutes up to half their budgets.
This case was the first to put that low to a legal test.
The ruling upholds the constitutionality of SB 1487, Brnovich said, and allows individual lawmakers to ask Brnovich’s office to investigate any ordinances they believe conflict with state law.
“This office has the authority to go after cities when ordinance are in conflict with state law,” Brnovich said. “I have to enforce the law.”
Local vs. state interest
The case raised broad questions about the extent to which the state can pre-empt local laws enacted by charter cities.
Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, used the 2016 law last year to ask Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate Tucson’s gun ordinance. Brnovich determined a violation may have occurred. Tucson sued, citing the Arizona Constitution’s protections for charter cities.
The state Constitution gives charter cities independence from state laws on matters of “strictly local concerns.”
There are 19 charter cities in Arizona, including Phoenix, Tucson, Glendale, Chandler, Flagstaff, Avondale, Mesa, Peoria, Scottsdale and Tempe.
The court arguments centered around what issues qualify as truly local.
During the hearing, attorney Rick Rollman, representing Tucson, said once a weapon is seized, it becomes city property and therefore is only of local interest.
Paul Watkins, who represented the Attorney General’s Office, said the apparent conflict between those two provisions was best resolved by a definitive ruling from the high court.
League of Arizona Cities and Towns Executive Director Ken Strobeck said he was disappointed SB 1487 wasn’t thrown out as unconstitutional, and that the court didn’t explicitly address whether the Legislature can withhold state funds if cities are found in violation.
“The decision really didn’t address a lot of the broader issues,” he said. “It’s still very confusing.”
He fears state lawmakers will now try to come after even more local ordinances they don’t like.
Lawmakers have threatened to challenge, among others, a Bisbee ordinance charging customers a nickel for plastic bags. State law forbids any restrictions on the use of plastic bags.
Strobeck said he believed the opinion still leaves unanswered questions about where charter cities’ authority ends and the Legislature’s begins.
“I’m sure this is not the end of litigation over it,” he said. “People want to have local control over their decisions.”
Court: Firearms a matter of statewide concern
In Thursday’s ruling, the court said “firearms-related statutes implicate several matters of statewide, not merely local, concern and therefore govern over the conflicting municipal ordinance.”
The opinion went on to say that in cases of a law that affects a municipality but is also of state concern, the state law takes precedence over the charter rule.
“Matters involving the police power generally are of statewide concern,” the opinion states. “The laws at issue here implicate the state’s police power in several respects, the disposition of forfeited or unclaimed property, the conduct of law enforcement officers, including their handling of unclaimed property, and the regulation of firearms.”
All seven justices agreed with the final ruling, but several offered differing opinions on some of the legal issues.
Finchem celebrated the ruling in a released statement.
“It is a good thing that the city of Tucson will finally be held accountable for their blatant disregard of state law,” he said. “Each citizen is expected to live by the law — for city officials to think they are exempt from state law is absurd.”
He said his intent was never to punish Tucson, but to prevent the loss of revenue the city could have made by selling the guns instead of destroying them.
“Today is a victory for taxpayers and the rule of law,” he said.
Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin in a statement said he was disappointed in the ruling.
“But I appreciate the fact that the city had the opportunity to challenge SB 1487 and to defend its autonomy as a Charter city,” he said.