Case of the Week: Neutral Decision-Maker Required for Campaign Finance Violation Claim

In Horne v. Polk, 242 Ariz. 226, 394 P.3d 651 (2017), the Arizona Supreme Court determined that due process rights had been violated after Arizona Attorney General Thomas Horne and other appellants (“Appellants”) had been accused of campaign finance violations.

In this case, the Arizona Secretary of State determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that Appellants had committed campaign finance violations. The Solicitor General appointed a Special Arizona Attorney General, Sheila Polk, to handle the case.

After an investigation, Polk issued a 25-page order finding that Appellants had violated campaign finance laws by illegally coordinating campaign expenditures, exceeding contribution limits, and collecting illegal contributions. Appellants requested an administrative hearing, where an administrative law judge recommended that Polk vacate her compliance order because she had failed to prove illegal coordination.

Polk rejected the administrative law judge’s recommendation and issued her final administrative decision that affirmed her own compliance order. Appellants appealed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, which affirmed.

Appellants then appealed to the court of appeals, where it was discovered for the first time that Polk personally participated in the prosecution of the case, by assisting with the preparation and strategy. Appellants argued that Polk’s dual role as both advocate and adjudicator violated their due process rights, but the court of appeals affirmed Polk’s decision.

The Arizona Supreme Court granted review of the due process issue only, and did not address the underlying merits of the case.  They held that it is a violation of due process when the same person serves as an accuser, advocate, and final decisionmaker in an agency adjudication.  Polk had been personally involved in all of these functions during the case.  The concern about due process when prosecutorial and adjudication functions are handled by the same agency is further magnified because agency determinations are given only deferential review by the courts.  The case was remanded to the Attorney General’s office for a new final determination by a neutral decisionmaker.

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