In a Victory for Activists, Lawsuit Against Arizona’s ALEC Lawmakers Can Proceed

An appeals court in Arizona ruled this week that a coalition of racial justice groups can pursue a lawsuit against 26 Republican state lawmakers accused of breaking Arizona’s open meetings law at a 2019 policy summit of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC is the powerful pay-to-play forum that brings hundreds of conservative lawmakers together with far-right activists and corporate lobbyists to craft conservative policies for state legislatures, many of which are actually passed into law. The Arizona ruling is a preliminary legal victory for racial justice activists who have long fought ALEC-sponsored legislation that they say disproportionately harms communities of color while safeguarding corporate power and white supremacy.

A unique state open meetings law in Arizona provided an opening for the activists to challenge the 26 lawmakers who attended the 2019 national ALEC summit held in central Arizona — and test ALEC’s controversial policymaking process in court. The lawsuit argues that enough lawmakers from five committees in the Arizona state legislature attended the ALEC summit to represent a quorum, or the minimum number of committee members necessary to conduct official business and make decisions.

Deliberating and drafting “model bills” at the ALEC summit — a process designed to “imitate” the actual legislative process — is essentially the first step toward introducing legislation in the legislative committees, the groups argue, and the fact that it happens behind closed doors violated a broad state law requiring that meetings of governing bodies be open to the public. The lawmakers’ move to dismiss the lawsuit was rejected by the appeals court this week, and the case was sent back to a state trial court, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Natally Cruz, interim Director of Puente Human Rights Movement, another plaintiff in the case, said the ruling “marks the turning of the tide.”

“For decades, ALEC and the captured lawmakers it associates with have corrupted the lawmaking process to advance a capitalist white supremacist agenda that has attacked Latinx, Black, Brown, Queer, and many other communities all across the U.S. without facing any form of accountability,” Cruz said in a statement.

The lawsuit also asks the court to make all notes and materials from the 2019 summit public and enjoin lawmakers from attending ALEC meetings behind closed doors in the future. Jacinta Gonzalez, senior organizer at Mijente, a Latinx rights organization that is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the ruling confirms what communities have been saying for years: Corporate lawmakers must follow the law and let people enter the rooms where decisions are made “about the future of our lives.”

“ALEC is really the place where the far-right and corporations can come together to create policy that is against human rights on multiple levels,” Gonzalez said in an interview.

Activists in Arizona and beyond have clashed with ALEC since 2009, when a state senator with ties to white supremacists introduced model legislation at ALEC that would later become SB 1070, Arizona’s infamous “show me your papers” law. Protests erupted as the model bill became state law, and legal challenges largely defanged provisions that invited police to racially profile Latinx people as undocumented immigrants. However, Gonzalez said, “copycat” legislation popped up across the country and passed in several other states, bringing activists into the street and civil rights attorneys into the courtroom.

ALEC has opposed efforts to strengthen labor unions and protections for workers, fought environmental and climate regulations, and worked with state lawmakers to punish Palestinian rights activists who support boycotts and divestment from Israel. While the group is more focused on economic issues than the culture wars, ALEC members in affiliated Christian groups have also launched legislative attacks on abortion rights and transgender kids in schools, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.

More recently investigative journalists have linked ALEC members to right-wing efforts to undermine public confidence in elections and mail-in voting, support former President Trump’s conspiracy theories and attempt at overthrowing the 2020 election, and pass voting restrictions in red states across the country. Civil rights groups say restrictions on voting pushed by Republicans — most famously the voter ID laws ALEC promoted in the pastdisproportionately disenfranchise low-income people, students, people with disabilities and voters of color.

Watchdogs say ALEC distanced itself from voter ID laws and disbanded its Public Safety and Elections Task Force after losing corporate members to controversy over voter ID and “stand your ground” laws that became infamous after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. After 300 progressive groups urged corporations cut ties with ALEC for promoting a wave of GOP voter suppression bills last year, ALEC leadership has said the group “doesn’t work on voting issues.”

However, critics on the left say this is a lie, and ALEC has worked with right-wing operatives and partner organizations to promote partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression. In fact, secretive ALEC working group on redistricting and election law was meeting at least a year before the 2020 elections. The group was reportedly led by Cleta Mitchell, a controversial attorney who served as a legal advisor for Trump as the former president pushed officials to overturn election results in Georgia and spread disinformation about the 2020 election, according to the League of Women Voters.

ALEC did not respond to a request for comment by the time this article was published.

Gonzales said the chance to fight ALEC’s secretive process for crafting model policies in court is a victory for all the communities targeted by right-wing legislation.

“It’s a fight that is connecting a lot of movements in different places and pushing back on far-right extremists and corporations that are trying to push a policy agenda,” Gonzalez said.