By Christina Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute |
Representing the owners of more than 50 properties, the Goldwater Institute has filed over $23 million in claims against the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, over an ordinance that went into effect in March that deprives residents of their property rights. That could be just the tip of the iceberg, as thousands more may have claims under state law.
In March, Flagstaff adopted a High Occupancy Housing Plan supposedly designed to address an increase in student housing. In actuality, the plan imposes sweeping regulations that deprive a wide variety of property owners, including families and small businesses, of their right to decide what to do with their land.
On Friday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, struck down California’s demand that nonprofit advocacy groups turn over confidential information about their donors. The 6-3 ruling in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta is considered a major victory for First Amendment advocates.
At issue was a dispute that began in 2014, when the Thomas More Law Center and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation went to federal court to challenge California’s rule.
“The case ends more than a decade of litigation that began when then-Attorney General Kamala Harris abruptly ended the practice that allowed nonprofits to turn in their annual reports with private information redacted, as a security measure. That had been allowed for many years, since if the Attorney General’s office ever actually needed such information, it could easily get it in many other ways—such as a subpoena or audit,” explains Timothy Sandefur of the Goldwater Institute in a blog post. “But in 2010, Harris ordered any nonprofit that collected money in California to hand over copies of their unredacted IRS paperwork. That information would be placed into a government database that Harris promised would be kept confidential. Of course, it wasn’t—a trial judge later found almost 2,000 instances in which Harris’s office allowed this information to be publicly circulated. (The Goldwater Institute received such a demand, but refused to disclose this information.)”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion which reverses the 9th Circuit Court opinion.
In his blog post, Sandefur says the Court’s ruling “vindicates the privacy rights of millions of Americans who choose to contribute to nonprofit organizations that articulate the political, cultural, or religious values they hold dear. That choice is guaranteed by the First Amendment—yet many federal, state, and local officials continue to devote their powers to stripping donors of their privacy rights whenever they exercise that constitutional freedom. This is often done under the guise of “transparency,” but transparency is for government—privacy is for people. Today’s decision is a victory for the free speech rights of all Americans, whatever their ideological background—and we look forward to continuing the fight for freedom of speech and privacy at the federal, state, and local levels.”
A swim coach is challenging the city of Scottsdale over its apparent favoritism in granting a private swim club exclusive access to city pools. The Goldwater Institute and American Freedom Network have joined the fight; they say the city’s actions have created a monopoly on public resources, and therefore are a violation of the Arizona Gift Clause. The coach backed by Goldwater, Joe Zemaitis, founded and oversees a K-12 swim club in the Metro Phoenix area called Swim Neptune. According to Zemaitis, their club has been attempting to gain access to Scottsdale public pools since 2007 – well over a decade.
Swim Neptune was never granted entry to the pools. However, Scottsdale always allowed entry for one private, city-sponsored team: the Scottsdale Aquatic Club. What’s more, that swim club reportedly received entry at a greater discounted rate. Despite Swim Neptune offering far greater compensation for pool access, the city would only admit the Scottsdale Aquatic Club. The Goldwater Institute claims that this violates Arizona’s Gift Clause prohibiting the government from giving gifts to private entities.
In a press release issued by the Goldwater Institute, Zemaitis summarized the city’s various methods of rejection in response to their club’s many requests for access.
“Since 2007, we’ve been aggressively pursuing space in the Scottsdale pools,” said Zemaitis. “They seem to reinterpret the rules and rewrite the rules every time we are eligible under their criteria, they change them again to try to freeze us and our residents out, and it’s simply not fair.”
In a press release, the Goldwater Institute said that families have suffered due to the city’s actions.
“Scottsdale’s unconstitutional actions against Swim Neptune are preventing the swim club’s Scottsdale families from using facilities that they’re already paying for with their taxes. That means that these families have to drive to surrounding cities to get swim lessons, eating up more time and money for something they should be able to get in the town they live in. One of those kids, 14-year-old Ethan Mindlin, was cut from the Scottsdale Aquatic Club when he was younger—and today, he’s won an Arizona state championship for swimming with Swim Neptune. But his family has to drive 45 minutes each way to take him to practice because Scottsdale has turned their back on him.”
In an interview with AZ Free News, National Litigation Director for the Goldwater Institute Jon Riches shared further insight about the relationship between the city and Scottsdale Aquatic Club.
“The team’s been there for several decades. I think part of it is sort of bureaucratic inertia. The city and this particular team always had this strange, cozy relationship,” said Riches.” The city wants to continue to pursue it at the exclusion of other groups. I don’t know exactly the ‘why.’ The most dangerous phrase in the English language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”
Riches explained that Zemaitis reached out to the Goldwater Institute years ago when his issues with the city were happening initially. At the time, their team referred Zemaitis’ case to the American Freedom Network – Goldwater’s network of pro-bono attorneys. Their attorneys sent the city of Scottsdale a letter, which prompted the city to put the pools out to bid.
Zemaitis and Swim Neptune didn’t receive relief at that point, because the city quickly canceled the bid and awarded Scottsdale Aquatic Club access. That’s when their case first went to trial.
After the case was appealed, Goldwater stepped in. Their team recognized similar patterns of potential Gift Clause violations. Riches stated that this case tackled a new issue presented under the clause: public resources versus expenditures.
“The government can’t spend public expenditures on private purposes,” asserted Riches. “[This case explores] what the test [is] for public resources for the exclusive benefit for private parties.”
Riches shared that they may receive a decision by the court by the end of this year, or early next year at the latest.
“This isn’t fair for [Zemaitis] or his kids. If the city can give special interests and treatment in this case, they can give anybody special treatment,” said Riches.
Corinne Murdock is a contributing reporter for AZ Free News. In her free time, she works on her books and podcasts. Follow her on Twitter, @CorinneMurdock or email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.