A federal judge hears Quartzsite election case

It was Quartzsite Councilman-elect Mark Orgeron versus the incumbents in what may be a case of ‘first impression’ as the two battled in federal court Tuesday.

The fight is over an emergency injunction to give Orgeron a seat on the Quartzsite Town Council, to which he was elected in May. One thing seems certain: nothing here is going to be resolved quickly.

The incumbents on the council have refused to seat Orgeron, claiming that he wasn’t qualified to run for the seat in the first place. Orgeron’s attorneys are arguing that he was qualified, and that the council’s post-election disqualification of him as a candidate was illegal.

The case is being overseen by Chief Judge Roslyn Silver, who was appointed by President Clinton to the U.S. Court for the District of Arizona in 1994, and became Chief Judge after the shooting death of previous Chief Judge John Roll during the 2011 assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

An attorney for the Town said he was “happy” with a proposed order Silver had written. But before she can take jurisdiction in this matter, Silver said she wanted both sides to supply her with more case law before she makes any decisions. That will take time. She gave both parties until Friday, June 22 to file supplemental briefs and until Wednesday, June 27 to file responses. She promised a ruling immediately thereafter.

There are two significant jurisdictional issues. The first is the issue of “abstention.” Silver said she was reluctant to intervene because the state has also taken action in the matter. Since La Paz County Attorney Sam Vederman has initiated a quo warranto action in state court to seat Orgeron, if Vederman is successful, Orgeron will be seated and no longer be suffering harm, a requirement to be heard in federal court. One observer commented:

This is a Catch-22 situation. Perhaps waiting on the federal court first, Vederman isn’t expediting the state matter. It will stretch out for at least a month before even the next step is taken. Whereas the federal court could act before that. In fact, the federal judge speculated it could take six months before the issue is finally resolved in the state system. (Longer if appealed.)

The second issue is the “first impression” nature of the case in the little town of Quartzsite. Judge Silver pointed out that, if she gives Orgeron what he wants, she would effectively be declaring durational residency requirements for candidates unconstitutional throughout the entire nation. The judge wanted some case law to back her up if she was going to make such a sweeping, landmark decision.

The attorneys also argued about things like how unconstitutional a law would have to be before a federal court declares it unconstitutional, and whether “strict scrutiny” or “rational determination” is the standard for review. The former favors Orgeron, the latter the Town.

As the wheels of justice grind into motion, the frustration continues to build in Quartzsite. Many citizens have taken to online forums and news outlets to say that they feel cheated, that their vote didn’t count, as they watch the incumbents on the Town Council continue to rule despite having been voted out of office. Others support the Council, saying that Orgeron, Mayor-Elect Ed Foster and their supporters are just troublemakers.

The question of whether Orgeron and Foster will be seated by a state or federal court, or neither, remains unanswered for now.

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