History Lesson For Today: Special Legislation

Today’s lesson is written as a service to Representative Steve Smith (R-Maricopa). A relatively recent arrival to our state, providence thrust poor Rep. Smith into a political career without the benefit of anything more than superficial knowledge of Arizona’s history, culture or economy. It is our duty as people who love Arizona to help him out.

The Tenth Territorial Legislature, which met at the capitol in Prescott in 1879, was known as the “Divorce Legislature” because granting divorces comprised a substantial portion of its business. In fact, many of the 65 bills it passed were strictly personal in nature, including 10 name changes and 18 divorces.

As an aside, one name change that they passed was for a man named John Smith, one of the early founders of Arizona’s Republican Party. Smith successfully appealed to the legislature to have his name changed to John Y.T. Smith, the initials standing for “Your’s Truly.” It seems that, given the fact that the Territory was full of folks who were fleeing a sordid past elsewhere, he wanted to make sure that everyone knew that his name really was John Smith. This, of course is not written to imply anything of the sort regarding any other relative newcomers named Smith.

Back in Washington D.C., this sort of pettiness was regarded as a sign of small-mindedness and political immaturity by the folks in Congress. The excesses of the so-called “Thieving Thirteenth” legislature of 1885 brought these concerns into focus and led to the passage of the Harrison Act, named for its sponsor, future United States President Benjamin Harrison, which restricted what territorial legislatures could do. Almost three decades later, Arizona’s political leaders decided that that these restrictions remained a good idea, and incorporated them into the State Constitution as Article 4, Section 19, which forbade the legislature from passing “local or special laws,” including “Granting divorces,” granting name changes, and “Granting to any corporation, association, or individual, any special or exclusive privileges, immunities, or franchises.”

Which brings us to Representative Smith, who has again introduced legislation to pay former State Senator Russell Pearce some $261,000 in reparations for losing his 2011 recall election. I say “reparations” rather than “reimbursement” because his campaign funds came from contributors rather than Pearce himself and the tone of the discussion seems to imply that Pearce was somehow wronged by the process. While, on its face, the law would seem to violate the constitution’s restrictions against special laws, Smith has gotten around this by writing it to apply generally. However, the fact that this recall was an unusual event and that this bill is written to be retroactive to November of 2011 make it clear that this is about Pearce. Sure, the bill might well stand up to judicial scrutiny, but it certainly violates the spirit of the constitution and the intent of the framers.

Smith’s bill has no co-sponsors and the leadership is unlikely to do him any favors, so this measure is likely to die as did a similar measure did last year. This in and of itself does not make it a waste of time, as there are many good reasons to introduce bills that  are unlikely to go anywhere. A legislator might want to draw attention to an issue, for example. What does not speak well for Smith is that he has chosen to use up a substantial portion of his 15 minutes of fame to harrumph his righteous outrage about a friend who lost an election. This is precisely the sort of small-mindedness that previous generations of political leaders wanted Arizona legislators to avoid.