B y J i m N i n t z e l
TROUBLED GOV. J. Fife Symington III becomes more delusional each passing day. Last month, for example, he credited his Grand Canyon grandstanding for getting the federal government back in business.
Symington's stunt--sending national guardsman to re-open the national park after the feds shut it down during the recent budget impasse--cost about $10,000, according the governor's staffers, who don't plan to compute an exact sum. Why bother? It's not their money.
That seems the general direction of the states' rights campaign these days--impotent showboating at taxpayer expense. Case in point: The recent court skirmish between the state and federal Judge Carl Muecke over the payment of special masters appointed to oversee prison conditions. The cost of that case, which the state lost, has already topped $200,000, with many bills yet to come. And the action accomplished exactly zilch.
The special masters were appointed by Muecke after the state repeatedly tried to back out of agreements it had made with the federal court. Fed up with paying the monitors, Symington and state prisons director Sam Lewis encouraged the Arizona Legislature to pass a law this year which kept Lewis from coughing up any money for the special masters unless the Legislature first approved the payment.
Lawyers for the inmates then sued to have Lewis held in contempt for ignoring $37,000 in bills. Muecke held Lewis in contempt, then turned the case over to visiting federal Judge David Ezra.
Lewis' attorney was Charles Cooper, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose legal arguments bore an eerie resemblance to those of George Wallace back during the glory days of desegration in the South.
Judge Ezra was so impressed with Cooper's reasoning that he also found Lewis in contempt, ordered him to pay the bills, warned him that he would be fined $10,000 a day if they were ever late again, and ordered the state to pay the inmates' attorney fees.
But Symington spokesman Doug Cole, who didn't return calls from The Weekly, told the Arizona Republic it made sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the crusade.
"As it stands now, a federal judge can appoint a special master to get chauffeured around, stay in condominiums, charge $65 an hour to drive to Florence, and we pay for it, the citizens of Arizona," Cole told the Phoenix daily.
Of course, we the citizens of Arizona also pay for lawyers to come from Washington, D.C., to take on the state's quixotic legal crusades--and they charge $305 an hour and probably aren't staying in a $19.95-a-night Motel 6 alongside the interstate.
Andrew Gordon, one of the attorneys for the inmates, laughs when he hears Cole's complaints.
"It's untrue, as is so much of what the governor says," he says. "There was a special master who had a bad back. He asked for permission to be reimbursed for having a driver if his back was bad and he needed to be driven around. As it turned out, he never used a driver, he never submitted a bill for a driver--at no time has the state ever paid for a driver for these guys."
What a relief--chauffeurs are still reserved for state officials and high-flying developers on their way to going bust.
The state's legal fees are being covered by the brilliant legal minds at the Constitutional Defense Council, which got $1 million from our screwball lawmakers during the '94 session. After a year and a half, the council--three very serious, well-groomed white men who get together for hearings at the Capitol, where they hear from an odd cavalcade of groveling lawyers and militia types--has yet to win a round in court. They're such heavy hitters some education folks in Phoenix begged them to back off after the CDC agreed to help them with a deseg case.
What do you want to bet these clowns get more money next session?
While the CDC was demonstrating its legal prowess, GOP Sen. Jon Kyl tried to do things the easy way, sponsoring legislation requiring federal courts to cover the costs of special masters rather than the states. In a particularly chickenshit move, Kyl tossed his amendment onto one of the budget resolution bills which President Clinton vetoed last month.
"The reason the special master is there is because the state was constantly violating the court order," Gordon says. "And then you get Kyl to say, 'Well, if the court wants to impose one of these special masters, somehow taxpayers all over the country should pay for it.' "
So it goes in the states' rights battle here in the untamed West--we continue to pick up the tab for both sides in these mindless legal shoot-outs. Take a look at Nye County, Nevada, a friendly corner of the world where Forest Service officials can look forward to regular bomb threats, which are occasionally carried out.
You might have read about these Nye guys; the county government is picking up a lot of ink for claiming jurisdiction over all federal land in the county, a move the feds have unsurprisingly challenged in court. Last week, when the Nye County legal team realized they didn't have anything resembling a case, they moved to be dismissed from the court action because they now claim Nevada owns the federal land, so the feds have to sue Nevada rather than the county--a move that comes after Nevada attorneys have already said in court they agree the land belongs to the feds. That's a legal argument so goddamn dumb it makes you wonder why the CDC hasn't supported these ding-a-lings.
Our governor's battle with the feds is simply this: An attempt to distract us from the ugly fact he's stiffing a lot of folks--including union pensioners and Phoenix taxpayers--for $23 million. And guess what: Gov. Deadbeat once again found a way for us to foot the bill for his legal sideshow, which rolls on. The state has already filed its appeal of Ezra's decision.
As Gordon says, "It's real easy when you're playing with someone else's money."
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