A recall election against a politician who authored Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law can go ahead as planned, a judge ruled Friday.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Hugh Hegyi threw out nearly all of the lawsuit that alleged flaws in the recall drive against state Senate President Russell Pearce.
The lawsuit by Pearce supporter Franklin Bruce Ross sought to have the Nov. 8 election called off on the grounds that recall supporters fell short of the required 7,756 voter signatures from Pearce's district in Mesa. Election officials say recall backers handed in 10,365 valid signatures.
The lawsuit alleged that there were flaws with signatures on petitions calling for the election, on affidavits completed by people who collected signatures, and on other paperwork associated with the recall drive.
Recall organizers contended they had "substantially complied" with all requirements for calling a recall election, while Pearce supporters said recall organizers should be held to a "strict compliance" standard and that the election should be called off because of errors.
Hegyi ruled that strict compliance is not the law in Arizona, except in unusual circumstances that aren't present in the Pearce recall challenge.
"The law relegates consideration of a change of this nature to the Supreme Court, and not to this trial court," Hegyi said.
Lisa Hauser, the attorney who pressed the challenge in court, said she expected this decision from Hegyi and she plans to appeal the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court, likely over the weekend.
"There are a number of issues that we raised to the court that are either matters of first impression or matters that the judge himself acknowledged that a court more powerful than him needs to address," Hauser said.
Thomas Ryan, an attorney representing recall organizers, said the ruling found that the recall drive substantially complied with the rules on all counts.
"I think we are in very good position to defend this on appeal," Ryan said.
Pearce is one of the nation's most outspoken advocates for tougher border enforcement. The Republican was the driving force behind several Arizona immigration laws, including last year's immigration enforcement law that is the focus of a federal lawsuit, and a 2007 law that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. Lawmakers in other states have tried to enact some immigration proposals first championed by Pearce.
He tried to win passage this year of other immigration measures, but he and his allies suffered a major defeat on the Senate floor. A majority of the chamber killed five bills after business leaders urged lawmakers to step back from the contentious issue.
Despite the setback, Pearce is still seen as a powerful figure at the state Capitol, with significant influence over the fate of the state budget and other legislative proposals.
Recall organizers have been critical of Pearce's views on confronting the state's border woes and say he has failed to focus on protecting public education and ensuring access to health care. Pearce has said he strives to promote schools, job creation, balanced budgets, law enforcement and secure borders.
Pearce was first elected to the Legislature in 2000 when he won a state House seat, and he has been re-elected to the House and Senate every two years since. He crushed a fellow Republican in a 2008 race who tried to capitalize on businesses' pushback to the state's employer sanctions law. He also won re-election in November 2010, finishing more than 20 percentage points ahead of the nearest challenger.
Charter school executive Jerry Lewis, a Republican from Mesa, is running against Pearce in the recall election. Republican Olivia Cortes also has made initial filings to run in the Nov. 8 race.
The challenge said county officials should have disqualified the signatures of voters who didn't write their address or the date when they signed the recall petition. County officials, who along with recall organizers and state officials asked for the lawsuit to be thrown out, argued that there's no evidence to determine that people collecting petition signatures had completed that information.
The lawsuit also said there were more than 700 petition signatures of people whose addresses were outside of Pearce's legislative district in Mesa. County attorneys say election officials don't have the authority to throw out signatures simply because a voter's registration address hasn't been updated.