Rebuffing Gov. Jan Brewer and Senate leadership, the Arizona Supreme Court on Friday reaffirmed its role as arbiter of legal and constitutional questions.
In a unanimous decision, the justices rejected arguments by the governor that she was within her rights last year in trying to remove Colleen Mathis as chairwoman of the Independent Redistricting Commission. The court said the reasons Brewer cited were not among those permitted.
More significant, the justices brushed aside Brewer's argument that her decision was beyond the purview of the judiciary to consider -- much less overturn -- because the firing had been ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.
"Ratification by one political branch of an action taken by another does not necessarily immunize the action from judicial review," wrote Justice John Pelander for the court. "To conclude otherwise would deprive the judiciary of its authority, and indeed its obligation, to interpret and apply constitutional law."
In fact, Pelander said, if what the governor and the GOP leadership contends were true, that would leave the courts powerless to review any legislative enactment which had been signed by the governor.
"But it is well settled that when one with standing challenges a duly enacted law on constitutional grounds, the judiciary is the department to resolve the issue even though promulgation and approval of statutes are constitutionally committed to the other two political branches," wrote Pelander.
The court had announced last year it was overruling Brewer's firing. But it was not until Friday the justices explained why they reached that conclusion.
Friday's ruling disappointed Brewer, who appointed Pelander and one of the other justices on the court.
Press aide Matthew Benson said the governor still believes she was within her rights to fire Mathis, as the 2000 voter-approved initiative creating the commission allows the governor to dismiss any panel member for gross misconduct or substantial neglect of duty.
"We believe the court acted outside its bounds in overruling the governor's decision on this," he said.
But Benson said his boss has no second thoughts about her choice of Pelander and Robert Brutinel.
"We're not going to agree with the court on every decision and in this one we happen to disagree quite strongly," he said. "But it is what it is, and we move forward."
Brewer and Republicans have been unhappy with the commission, contending that the lines it drew for the state's 30 legislative and nine congressional districts were designed to favor Democrats. But the governor took it a step farther, firing Mathis.
The governor charged that Mathis was guilty of gross misconduct by conducting commission business out of the public's view. That is based on charges she lined up votes on the commission by phone, ahead of time, to award a contract to a specific firm.
Brewer also said Mathis violated the 2000 voter-approved law by ignoring requirements to create compact districts and protect communities of interest, focusing instead on creating as many politically competitive districts as possible.
But Pelander said the court, using its constitutional power to review such decisions, concluded that nothing that Brewer alleged and that Mathis did fits within the definition of substantial neglect of duty or gross misconduct.
First, he said there was no evidence that a quorum of the five-member commission had met in secret.
And Pelander said the second charge was, at best, premature, since the commission had yet to finish its maps, meaning Brewer had no evidence that the lines were improperly drawn. And even if it turns out that the now-final maps do not comply with the law, Pelander said the remedy is to challenge the maps in court, not claim that Mathis is guilty of substantial neglect of duty.
Pelander said he and his colleagues were not substituting their judgment for that of the governor but simply fulfilling their role in ensuring the constitutional requirements for firing a commissioner were followed.