PHOENIX – Come election time in 2012, voters will have online access to more information about state appellate judges when they decide whether to retain them, thanks to two new laws.
The measures require an online listing of rulings in which those sitting on the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court benches decided the constitutionality of statutes. A short biography and the full text of each judge’s decisions for his or her current term will also be available.
Sen. Ron Gould, R–Lake Havasu City, said he sponsored the laws to give voters the tools they need to make informed decisions about the people who serve on those courts.
“Rather than having people call me up and ask me what I think, they should have a place where they can go and find out what they think for themselves,” Gould said.
The information will be posted by the Commission for Judicial Performance Review, which already keeps track of judges who are appointed and retained. The commission, made up of 18 citizens, six attorneys and six judges, surveys those who interact with judges in court and then releases a scorecard for judges facing retention.
Gould said that information, which is posted on the commission’s website and in the Office of the Secretary of State’s voter guide, is insufficient because it is based on the opinions of those who appear before appellate judges.
“To me, the system as it is just doesn’t provide enough transparency,” he said.
Those appointed to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are up for retention after their first two years and every six years thereafter.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D–Phoenix, says Gould’s effort to require more information is really a thinly veiled effort to oust liberals.
“The ultraconservatives, they want to inject partisan politics,” he said. “That’s not the system we want, and I don’t think the mass majority of people in Arizona want that type of system.”
Gallardo said he doesn’t think voters should focus on whether a judge rules liberally or conservatively on issues.
“It should be based on competency,” he said. “It should be based on integrity, on character.”
Paul Bender, a law professor at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said the measures are part of a larger attack on the state’s merit system for selecting judges and an effort to put more conservative judges in place.
“By saying, ‘Put up your biography and let us know your constitutional rulings,’ they’re hoping that they can stir up some public opposition to particular judges who they don’t like,” Bender said.
Gould said he thinks “backroom politics” are already a part of the appointment system and called the laws an attempt to give the public more access to the overall process.
“It’s not necessarily partisan,” he said. “It’s whether the judge can properly interpret the Constitution.”
Cathi Herrod, president of the conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy, said her organization supports the laws because they will help voters determine which judges most align with their own interpretations of the Constitution.
“I think the key point on in this information is just the fact that a voter will know whether a judge or a justice declared a statute constitutional or unconstitutional,” she said.
Peter Dunn, a lobbyist for the Arizona Judges Association, said the laws require information that is helpful to voters without politicizing the retention process.
“Judges believe the more information the voters have the better,” he said.
Dunn added that while biographical information and ruling citations are already available to the public, having it all in one place is valuable to voters.
Gould said the laws are a good start but added that he’d like to see much more citizen participation in the retention process. Beyond that, he said all appellate judges and Supreme Court justices should be elected.
“We got about halfway,” he said.
Whitney Phillips is a reporter for Cronkite News Service