WASHINGTON -- Arizona wants to secede.
Not from the United States, but from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over the state and a host of civil, criminal and immigration cases within its borders.
Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and lawmakers for the state announced a partnership on Thursday to introduce legislation in Congress to sever ties with the appellate court once and for all -- with their sights set on joining up with another circuit or creating a brand new one just for them.
“Arizonans deserve better than this from the people in power, and that includes a judicial process that is judicious in nature,” Ducey said in the announcement, which was backed by fellow Arizona Republicans Sen. Jeff Flake and Rep. Matt Salmon. “It’s time that Congress takes overdue action to resolve this crisis in our courts -- and I’m proud to join a strong coalition of Arizona leaders stepping up to facilitate the process in Washington.”
Ducey said the reason for the overhaul was the 9th Circuit’s reputation as “the most overturned and overburdened court in the country,” and that the court’s “voluminous caseload and disproportionate size” essentially meant justice delayed for Arizona residents.
“This circuit is overloaded hugely and it's larger than any other circuit, larger than several combined, so it needs to be split off. So, I'm glad to make another push,” Flake said, referencing prior failed attempts to reform the 9th Circuit, whose jurisdiction is by far the most geographically vast in the country.
Arizona’s move isn’t unprecedented. Bills going as far back as 1983 have aimed to break up the 9th Circuit. One ambitious 1999 proposal sought to reorganize it into regions and remake its judicial governance from the ground up.
But where those efforts seemed pragmatic, more recent history strongly suggests that politics rather than a concern for judicial efficiency is the reason for the renewed focus on the court.
Almost 10 years ago to the day, conservative outcry against the the liberal 9th Circuit -- which covers the entire West Coast, plus Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii and a couple of territories -- led to congressional action to split it in two. But the efforts never went anywhere.
Flake insisted that "due process" for litigants, and not politics or dislike for the court's rulings, were the motivating factors for getting Arizona out of the 9th Circuit this time around.
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who wasn’t part of Ducey's announcement but supports the proposed shakeup, was more blunt about what leaving the court would mean for the state.
“I'm all for it. I've been for it for years,” McCain told The Huffington Post. “[It’s] come up many times before, for years.” He added that anyone who has closely followed the decisions of the court “wants to get the hell out” of its jurisdiction.
In a letter addressed to House and Senate leadership in October, Ducey said Congress should consider "realigning" Arizona in the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, or else create a brand new circuit encompassing Arizona and other "non-coastal states."
Arizona has a bruising history with the 9th Circuit, in large part because its judges on numerous occasions have ruled state legislation unconstitutional or dismissed lawsuits by local officials. And the Supreme Court, for the most part, has let those rulings stand.
Perhaps the greatest bench-slap Arizona received in recent memory was when the Supreme Court struck down key parts of its controversial "show me your papers" law, which was touted by Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and unduly targeted Latinos and immigrants.
"The Government of the United States has broad, undoubted power over the subject of immigration and the status of aliens," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the ruling, reminding Arizona who has the ultimate authority over immigration matters. (The 9th Circuit had earlier blocked the most contested parts of the law.)
But Arizona has had other run-ins with the appeals court, such as when it tried but failed to convince its judges it should be able to deny driver's licenses to DREAMers, to implement a constitutional amendment that would've stripped bail access from undocumented immigrants or to allow a wholesale ban on ethnic studies at Arizona schools.
And earlier this month, the Supreme Court tossed a request by Arpaio to review his lawsuit over President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration -- already the locus of another multi-state case the justices will hear in the spring. Arizona is involved in that case, too.
To be sure, the Supreme Court itself has had issues with the 9th Circuit's decision-making. In 2010, one of its judges lamented that, in a 10-year span, the "court got it wrong" in 81 percent of the cases that reached the high court. Other circuits had an average reversal rate of 71 percent.
The difference is notable, but not extraordinary. And, all told, it could be attributable to the factors Ducey and Flake pointed out, like workload and its massive jurisdiction. All of that is independent of any grievances Arizona may have with the 9th Circuit's rulings.
"We’ve seen these efforts before from Republicans in recent years, and the intent is always the same: To break up a court that they tend to disagree with," said Kyle Barry of Alliance for Justice, a left-leaning advocacy group of more than 100 organizations focused on the judiciary. "They complain about consistency in the court, yet want to dismantle an entire circuit because they don’t like its decisions."
Sidney Thomas, the court's chief judge, did not return a request for comment from The Huffington Post. But U.S. Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, who led the 9th Circuit until 2014, lauded prior chief judges who fought back congressional attempts to break up "this great circuit of ours."
Cristian Farias reported from New York; Jennifer Bendery reported from Washington.