State Supreme Court reverses sanctions against Arizona GOP in 2020 election challenge

Published on May 3, 2024

Original article by:
Sasha Hupka
Arizona Republic

The Arizona Supreme Court in a Thursday decision reversed sanctions against the Arizona Republican Party on a 2020 election challenge.

The decision overturns lower courts’ rulings and could chill similar sanctions in future election lawsuits.

Maricopa County officials declined to comment Thursday on the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling. Attorney Dennis Wilenchik, who represented the Arizona GOP in the case, called the decision “a total unanimous victory.”

He said he believes lower courts will “pay attention” to the ruling and “will not be as quick to find sanctions for whatever other purposes beyond the actual merits.”

“This watershed decision should give those that readily embrace sanctions as a means to quell free speech and thought great pause,” he told The Arizona Republic. “I am proud of our Supreme Court today.”

Test ballots are hand counted, July 14, 2021, in the Wesley Bolin Building at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix.

The case was the only suit that remained outstanding from 2020 in Arizona. It challenged how Maricopa County audited ballots in the presidential race and asked a court to stop officials from certifying results.

In 2021, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah said the case was without merit. He called it “groundless” and ruled the Arizona GOP must pay attorneys’ fees to the Secretary of State’s Office. Last year, the Arizona Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

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The Arizona Supreme Court considered an appeal that only addressed the issue of sanctions in the case. Justice John Lopez wrote in an opinion for the court that awarding attorneys’ fees was “improper” because the Arizona Republican Party’s claim was “not groundless” — although he noted that there was “no indication” the county’s hand count audit methods “affected the election.”

“We only hold that petitioners’ requested mandamus relief was not groundless because it was at least fairly debatable, even if a ‘long shot,'” the decision read.

The Arizona Supreme Court building in Phoenix.

The court also raised concerns that issuing inappropriate sanctions poses “a real and present danger to the rule of law.”

“During times of social and political contention and strife, we must be mindful that our courts provide a means of resolving such conflicts when issues are legitimately presented,” Lopez wrote. “By sanctioning parties and their lawyers for bringing debatable, long-shot complaints, courts risk chilling legal advocacy and citizens raising ‘questions’ under the guise of defending the rule of law.”

Will the ruling impact sanctions in future election cases?

The court’s decision comes as Arizona gears up for another presidential election year.

The swing state saw a cascade of election cases following the 2020 and 2022 elections. This year, a handful of new election-related lawsuits have already emerged to challenge various procedures.

Many election cases in recent years have resolved with sanctions against plaintiffs and their attorneys. The Arizona Supreme Court itself ordered sanctions last year against former gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake’s lawyers for “unequivocally false” claims made in court as she challenged her 2022 loss to Gov. Katie Hobbs.

Sanctions have also emerged as a possible deterrent to election litigation based on voting conspiracies that emerged after the 2020 presidential race.

For instance, a defamation lawsuit filed in June by Republican Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer is expected to serve as a high-profile test of whether false election statements against a known public official could be actionable in court. Richer is seeking sanctions against Lake in the case.

Sasha Hupka covers county government and election administration for The Arizona Republic.