PHOENIX - An Arizona appeals court has ruled against a political group that spent about $1.5 million during the state's 2010 attorney general race on a TV commercial that was critical of Republican candidate Tom Horne.
A three-judge panel of the Arizona Court of Appeals on Thursday reversed a lower-court judge who concluded the commercial by Committee for Justice and Fairness was issue-oriented, rather than advocating for Horne's defeat.
The group claimed its ad confronted issues of child safety, but the appeals court rejected that argument, saying the only purpose for running the TV spot just weeks before Horne's general-election showdown with Democrat Felecia Rotellini was to advocate for Horne's defeat.
"In this case, reasonable minds could not differ as to whether CJR's advertisement encouraged a vote against Horne," the appeals court wrote.
The appeals court said the group, which is funded primarily by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, should have registered as a political committee and filed campaign finance reports.
Horne's 2014 campaign had no immediate comment on the ruling.
Thomas Irvine, an attorney for the committee, said it's unknown whether the group will appeal the decision.
"Today's ruling upholds the principle that outside interest groups cannot hide behind attack ads like the ones funded by the Democratic Attorneys General Association through CJF," said Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose office pressed a complaint against the group.
Horne said in a statement that he was pleased that the appeals court ruled that the committee's actions were illegal.
Horne, who ultimately beat Rotellini in the general election, tried unsuccessfully to bar the group from airing the ad and filed a complaint with state officials that led to Thursday's decision.
In its ad, the committee said Horne had voted as a legislator against toughening Arizona's statutory rape law and later voted, as a state education official, to put back into the classroom a teacher who had been caught with pornography.
About 18 months after Horne defeated Rotellini, Horne and aide Kathleen Winn were accused of illegally coordinating spending in his 2010 election while Winn ran an independent committee called Business Leaders for Arizona. Winn raised money for the group to counter the ad run by the Committee for Justice and Fairness.
Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk has ordered Horne to repay donors about $400,000 raised by Winn's group and to amend his campaign finance reports. Horne is appealing that order.