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Goldwater to AZ Supreme Court: Don’t Let Bureaucrats Shield Invalid Decisions from Courts

October 17, 2022

The Goldwater Institute filed a brief in the Arizona Supreme Court today urging the justices to reverse a lower court ruling that blocks people from challenging the legality of bureaucratic decisions, even if the government agency had no jurisdiction to begin with. The case, which arose from a dispute over campaign finance regulations, could have implications for all of the state’s many different regulatory agencies.

The legal principle involved is called “collateral attack,” and it happens when a person argues that a previous ruling—by either a court or a bureaucratic agency—should never have been issued because the judge or the bureaucrats had no jurisdiction over the case to begin with. Decisions without jurisdiction are generally considered void, which means that if a judge or an agency issues such a judgment, the person against whom that judgment was issued can turn around and file a second lawsuit “collaterally attacking” the first one—that is, arguing that it should be erased.

But when the Legacy Foundation filed a case against the Arizona Clean Election Commission, trying to “collaterally attack” a judgment that the Commission had issued against it in 2017, the Arizona courts refused to let the case proceed. This time, they said, at 2017 judgment remained in effect regardless of whether the Commission had jurisdiction or not. The court’s rationale? “Finality” is more important than “validity.” In other words, it’s better for courts to enforce invalid rulings—in order to ensure that matters are finalized—than to let people “collaterally attack” judgments as a means of ensuring that they are legally valid.

That’s bad reasoning. It would insulate administrative agency decisions from legal challenge even where those rulings were issued without the legally required jurisdiction. And as we argue in our brief, that’s particularly worrisome in cases involving bureaucracies that often deal with ordinary property owners and business people who don’t have lawyers. Unfortunately, bureaucratic agencies often hold “informal” hearings where people are told (wrongly) that they don’t need to have an attorney present. When that happens, people often fail to recognize legal mistakes that the agency commits—and that’s why it’s important for them to be able to “collaterally attack” bureaucratic decisions afterward.

Our brief urges the justices to prioritize “validity” over “finality,” and to ensure that bureaucratic agencies remain within their legally prescribed limits.

You can read our brief here.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Legal Affairs at the Goldwater Institute.



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