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Brnovich sues Hobbs in dispute over election procedures

Republican Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is joining with Republican Party officials to sue Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs in an escalation of a dispute over the election procedures manual she is required to complete.

The two have been at odds for months over the manual that tells county officials how to run elections, and have tangled in other fights as well. Brnovich threatened to investigate Hobbs for temporarily taking down an online signature collection system used by candidates in order to update it with new congressional and legislative district maps approved early this year.

Hobbs then sought a judge's intervention to stop that promised investigation, but the judge said her request was premature. Brnovich then farmed out the investigation to the Cochise County Attorney's Office.

There is a political backdrop to all the drama. Brnovich is seeking his party's nomination for U.S. Senate in hopes of taking on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in November. Hobbs, meanwhile, is running for governor.

The lawsuit by Brnovich and the Yavapai County Republican Committee was filed Thursday in Yavapai County Superior Court. It seeks an order compelling Hobbs to provide a manual that gives county election officials clear guidance on how to run elections and complies with current state election law.

Katie Hobbs senate testimony
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs testifies before the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Oct. 26, 2021.

Hobbs submitted the manual as required on Oct. 1, but Brnovich refused to approve it. That left the one she completed two years before as the guidelines for the 2020 elections. A contract lawyer Brnovich hired to review the manual sent her a letter in early December where he said large parts of it did not meet legal requirements.

In a Dec. 17 response, Hobbs told Brnovich much of the rejected material had been approved just two years earlier by him and Gov. Doug Ducey.

"There is no legal basis for these wholesale deletions, and they contravene the purpose of the Manual itself, leaving large gaps in election procedures, introducing inconsistency to longstanding processes, and creating unnecessary uncertainty and risk for election officials on the cusp of an election year that will already be challenging due to redistricting,” Hobbs wrote.

Brnovich’s decision to sue Hobbs stands in contrast to his handling of the previous secretary of state, Republican Michele Reagan, who never completed an election procedures manual during her four years in office — during one election cycle, she didn’t even bother to write one.

At the time, Brnovich rejected a complaint by attorney Tom Ryan seeking the attorney general’s prosecution of Reagan.

“[Brnovich] said, ‘Well, you know, it's more like the pirate's code, it's more of a guideline, it's not really the law,’” Ryan said. “And he didn't sue her. Here we have him suing Katie Hobbs for the same things twice and making it into a very high profile issue.”

Ryan accused Brnovich of filing a politically motivated lawsuit to benefit his U.S. Senate campaign.

“It is so incredibly disappointing that our attorney general, who is an officer of the court, not just a politician, is forgetting his duties as an officer of the court is relying solely on his interest as a politician,” Ryan said.

A spokeswoman for Brnovich said a 2019 law, passed after Hobbs took office, clarified that the secretary must issue a new election procedures manual by December 31 of each odd-numbered year.

Brnovich and Hobs have been at odds for years. In 2020, Hobbs filed a complaint with the state bar alleging Brnovich acted unethically in representing her and her office in election cases. The GOP-controlled Legislature responded by stripping Hobbs of her authority to determine the state's position in election cases, even though she's the chief election official, though that provision was later blocked by the Arizona Supreme Court.

Brnovich entered a diversion agreement with the State Bar of Arizona that will result in the complaint being dismissed if he follows through with certain commitments. Brnovich has not said what's required of him, but such agreements often involve additional training in legal ethics.

Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.