State Sen. Don Shooter [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Candidates cannot be held responsible when forged signatures turn up on their nominating petitions, even when they gathered the names themselves, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled this morning.

In a decision with huge implications for future elections, the justices acknowledged there was evidence that seven signatures on two of the nominating petitions for state Senate candidate Toby Farmer had been forged. Farmer himself had signed the back of the petitions saying he had personally witnessed the signings.

Based on that, incumbent Don Shooter, R-Yuma, who brought the challenge, asked the court to disqualify Farmer from running.

But the justices, in the unsigned unanimous ruling, said evidence of forgery was not enough to prove that Farmer himself knew the signatures were false. And they pointed out that Farmer — who Shooter's lawyers did not call as a witness — presented evidence from a handwriting expert that the forged signatures were not from Farmer.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Rea had rebuffed Shooter's bid to declare that Farmer knew of the forgeries. The high court had refused, in a brief expedited order, to disturb that ruling, clearing the way for Farmer to be on the Republican primary ballot.

Today's opinion explains the court's reasoning.

The justices said what Shooter wants is for courts to “infer,” as a matter of law, that Farmer must have known about the forgeries. But they refused to go along.

“The inference that Shooter seeks is the presence of a fact, namely, Farmer's alleged knowledge of the forgeries,” the justices wrote. They said they were not about to second-guess Rea's ruling.

With no provable evidence Farmer knew of the forgeries, that eliminated the possibility he could be automatically disqualified from running. Instead, Shooter was left with only the court's conclusion that seven signatures were forged.

But the justices said that, even eliminating those seven, “Farmer still had hundreds more valid signatures than he needed for his name to appear on the ballot.”

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