A Maricopa County Superior Court judge this week declared unconstitutional the state’s ban on mask mandates and other pandemic restrictions in schools.

The judge ruled the four state laws violated a constitutional provision that bills should deal with a single topic, since they were stuffed into a budget bill without hearings.

“This is classic logrolling — a medley of special interests cobbled together to force a vote for all or none,” said Judge Katherine Cooper in a 17-page ruling.

The ruling centered on the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools and cities, but other laws as well. All were added to a budget bill at the last minute, rather than going through the normal legislative process. Other laws affected included provisions requiring anti-fraud measures for ballots, a ban on proof of vaccinations to attend university classes in person and limits on teaching anything that smacked of “critical race theory” in schools.

Gov. Doug Ducey and Attorney General Mark Brnovich harshly criticized the judge and vowed to appeal the ruling.

“Today’s decision is the result of a rogue judge interfering with the authority and processes of another branch of government,” said the governor in a statement. “Further action will be taken to challenge this ruling and ensure separation of powers is maintained.”

Brnovich said, “it is unfortunate that left-wing groups want to undermine the legislative process and indoctrinate our children with critical race theory and force vaccines on those who don’t want them.”

The judge’s ruling made it clear the ruling centered on how the laws were enacted — not on the provisions of the laws themselves. “Whether the legislature complied with requires of the constitution and whether a provision is reasonably related to a ‘budget reconciliation’ are questions properly before the court.”

However, many education groups hailed the ruling – which would overturn the legislative restrictions and presumably shift back to school boards the responsibility for deciding on COVID-19 prevention measures.

The Arizona School Boards Association said the ruling would lead to a more open and transparent legislative process. “ASBA applauds the ruling today that allows school boards to exercise local decision making, based on local conditions, in determining whether to have a mask requirement in their schools.”

Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman also welcomed the ruling.

“Passing overwhelmingly complex laws in the eleventh hour without public comment is an assault on the democratic process,” she said in a statement. “With this ruling, Arizona school leaders, educators and community members can come together to make the best decisions on public safety, health and education. While some will likely want to challenge today’s ruling, our communities are tired of being political pawns in dangerous attempts to subvert democracy and ignore science. Students and their families have worked hard to learn safely among their friends and teachers and they deserve to enjoy the remainder of the school year without distraction.”

House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding released a statement saying, “this is a huge win for Arizona students, teachers and staff as school districts continue the difficult job of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in our classrooms, and it’s a strong rebuke to Republican lawmakers who garnered votes for their budget by including several controversial policy items from members who couldn’t otherwise get those bills passed.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends that schools return to mask mandates indoors when students can’t socially distance, in the wake of the spread of the Delta variant that has led to a spike in cases in schools across the nation.

Numerous studies show that masks dramatically reduce COVID-19 cases, since the respiratory virus spreads from person to person on almost microscopic droplets released in a person coughs, talks or breaths. Upgrading ventilation systems, leaving windows open and mask wearing have a much bigger impact slowing the spread of the virus than any intervention other than widespread vaccination.

Most schools in the White Mountains do not have mask mandates, while most schools on the reservations have reimposed protective measures.

Navajo County’s undergoing an ongoing surge in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths — but that’s mostly in south county, which has a much lower vaccination rate than the reservations.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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