A Hispanic activist is suing Russell Pearce, saying the Senate president violated his rights in having him banned from the building and then later arrested.
Attorney Stephen Montoya charged in federal court that Pearce targeted Salvador Reza because his client “has been a vocal and consistent critic’’ of Pearce’s policies and political affiliations, “and Mr. Pearce is aware of such criticism.’’ More to the point, he said Pearce exceeded his legal authority.
“Citizens have the right to petition their elected officials,’’ Montoya said Tuesday.
“The government, or government agents like Sen. Pearce, cannot arbitrarily sever that right or in any way impede that right without due process of law,’’ he continued. “Sen. Pearce can’t just arbitrarily say this individual or this group of individuals are banned from the Senate.’’
Pearce said he never targeted Reza. But he did defend his right to declare the building off limits to “people who incite riots.”
The lawsuit traces its roots to a February hearing on legislation aimed at illegal immigrants. With the small hearing room filled, most were shunted off to an overflow room to watch on closed-circuit TV.
There, some members of the audience, which reached close to 300 according to estimates, cheered and clapped while watching, conduct not normally permitted in hearing rooms where live testimony is taking place.
According to police reports, Pearce, who was in his office, told security officers to identify and photograph the leaders and deny them future entrance into the Senate. One of those was Salvador Reza.
No one was removed at the time.
Several days later, Reza returned to the Senate to meet with Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, his senator.
Sgt. Jeff Trapp of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, who serves as chief of Senate security, wrote in his report that he read Reza a statement telling him that “the Senate president’s office has instructed me to tell you that due to disruptive and disorderly behavior you are no longer allowed inside the Arizona Senate.” When Reza refused to leave, he was arrested and booked on charges of trespass.
The county attorney’s office never prosecuted either Reza or a female companion who was arrested at the same time. And the ban on Reza has since been lifted.
Montoya said the arrest never should have taken place — and never would have taken place had Pearce not issued the ban. He said the Senate president never gave Reza an opportunity to be heard before issuing the ban.
“Mr. Reza is a taxpayer,” Montoya said. “He has every bit of right to enter the statehouse of the state of Arizona as every other taxpayer does, whether Sen. Pearce likes it or not.”
Pearce, however, argued the Arizona Constitution gives him the power to control what goes on in the Senate.
One key issue is whether Pearce knew up front he was banning a political foe.
Pearce told Capitol Media Services he did not.
“I never set foot in the room” where Reza and others were, Pearce said. And Pearce said Joe Kubaki, the Senate’s sergeant at arms, never identified to him ahead of time who were the people believed to be leading the activities, the people whom Pearce said he wanted banned from the building.
Montoya, however, said that proves nothing, saying the Senate president, in a subsequent press release, endorsed the arrests and that police “were acting pursuant to his direction.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages. It also asks the judge to order Pearce not to violate Reza’s rights in the future.