Playing a Leading Role: How Recent Cases Are Thrusting the Arizona Courts into the State’s Budget Drama

According to one commentator, “state budgets were a mess in . . . 2009, a debacle in . . . 2010, and look like an impending catastrophe in . . . 2011.” Arizona’s budget is no exception. The state is in the worst fiscal crisis in its history, with deficits projected to be at least $2.5 billion annually through at least 2013. As the Arizona Legislature’s options for plugging the deficits have dwindled, legal challenges involving the budget have mounted, thrusting the courts into the budget process and frustrating elected officials. Governor Jan Brewer, for example, has lamented the recent spike in lawsuits, complaining that interest groups “sue, sue, sue” rather than work out their differences with the political branches. In the last few years, the Arizona Supreme Court has decided several major cases involving the budget. These cases, which raised concerns about separation of powers and the proper role of the judiciary, provided the court an opportunity to develop its jurisprudence on standing, the political question doctrine, and special action jurisdiction—doctrines that effectuate the division of powers outlined in Article III of the Arizona Constitution. These cases provide both elected officials and potential litigants critical guidance regarding the judiciary’s willingness to entertain future budget litigation.