The most frequent request we get asked at CAP is how to vote on the judges on the ballot.

A reliable method to objectively, comprehensively, and fairly evaluate judges does not exist. That’s my conclusion after years of monitoring judicial selection and rulings.

To truly evaluate a judge’s judicial philosophy and record requires hours upon hours of reading tens, or even hundreds of cases. That information on county judges, for example, is not easily available.

Arizona’s “Merit Selection” System

Decades ago, Arizona voters approved a state constitutional amendment making merit selection as the means of selecting judges for the Arizona Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, and Superior Courts in counties with over 250,000 population. Here’s how it works:

  • An individual applies for a judicial opening.
  • A commission appointed by the Governor screens, interviews, and selects nominees to send to the Governor. Commission members are appointed by the Governor, then confirmed by the Arizona Senate.
  • The Governor appoints the judge to fill the judicial vacancy.
  • Then the judges stand for a “retention election” either every four years or every six years, depending on the court. In the retention election, the voter decides whether or not to retain the judge.

Information CAP Offers on Judges

At Center for Arizona Policy, we send surveys to each judicial candidate. The surveys ask five questions relevant to the judge’s judicial philosophy. Regrettably, few judges return the surveys, but a few will send a letter outlining their judicial philosophy.

A CAP-proposed and supported law requires the courts to make available public decisions issued by each judge on the retention ballot that considered issues of constitutionality. CAP Legislative Counsel Maddalena Savary and I then take that list and summarize each ruling by listing the question presented, the decision on constitutionality, and the judge’s position. Our summaries are posted at azvoterguide.com.

For example, many of you followed the Brush and Nib case through the courts. If a Court of Appeals or Supreme Court judge on the ballot ruled in that case, you will find his or her position at azvoterguide.com.

Starting Monday, October 5, voters can go to www.azvoterguide.com to access this information:

Judicial Performance Review Commission (JPR)

The Judicial Performance Review Commission consists of over 30 judges, attorneys, and citizens. The members evaluate surveys submitted by attorneys, litigants, and parties appearing before each judge being evaluated. Then JPR votes on whether or not the judge should be retained. The percentage of returned surveys typically is very low. Yet that is the basis for the JPR scores recommending whether or not to retain a judge.  Further, the voter isn’t informed about the cases leading to those scores or survey results.

The JPR scores are printed in the publicity pamphlet each voting household received in the mail. The information is also available at www.azcourts.gov. When you click on the individual judge’s name online, you are able to access a complete listing of cases before the appellate level judges – more than only the constitution-related rulings.

While the JPR makes a valiant effort to evaluate judicial performance, it falls short of meeting a comprehensive and thorough evaluation system.

Conclusion

The only real accountability with judicial selection comes through the voters selecting the Governor every four years and the state senators every two years. The Governor appoints the judges. The Senate confirms the members of the appointment commissions. It’s nearly impossible to defeat a judge on the retention ballot.

CAP has advocated for judicial reform measures to improve the system in the past. Some have worked, but most have not. To change any significant part of judicial selection requires a state constitutional amendment, meaning a ballot measure voted on by the people. CAP tried that a few years back and we lost due to lack of resources and public education.

For now, CAP monitors the selection process, advocates occasionally for the appointment of certain judges, and continually looks for ways to provide more information to you, the voter. Be sure to check out judicial information at www.azvoterguide.com starting Monday, October 5.

Voter Registration deadline for the November 3 General Election is Monday, October 5. Register or change your address at servicearizona.com. Early Voting starts Wednesday, October 7.

ICYMI

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