Judges might go on ballot in Maricopa County - East Valley Tribune: News

Judges might go on ballot in Maricopa County

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Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2008 10:04 pm | Updated: 10:44 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Across the nation, people who wanted to become judges in state courts in recent years have been engaging in some of the nastiest and newly expensive political campaigns in history.

But in Maricopa County, the courts have avoided the ugliness altogether because of a system put in place by voters in 1974. Judges in the county are chosen by a select panel of legal experts and, ultimately, the governor.

Now, Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, wants to throw the county's judges back into the political arena.

His proposal, which has picked up speed in the Legislature and is being backed by several influential Republicans, would pit candidates for the bench against one another in the kind of political campaigns voters did away with nearly 35 years ago.

The result, some say, could slowly flood the nation's fifth-largest court system with judges who make decisions based on what's politically popular, rather than what's in line with the law.

It could also cause headaches for county election officials, who would have to go through a complicated and costly process of setting up new voting districts and new rules to elect 95 judges.

"I think the first question is: Why would we change?" said Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor, a Democrat who has spoken out against Pearce's proposal at the Legislature.

The current system, McGregor said, allows judges to stay independent and fair because they don't have to beg for campaign money every few years.

When campaign funds come from lawyers, businesses and other groups that may appear before the court, it makes for conflicted courtrooms, she said.

Plus, every six years, voters already have the choice to keep the judge or vote them out in retention elections.

"The judges are accountable to the laws and the Constitution," McGregor said. "We're not supposed to be representative (officials)."

The House is scheduled to debate Pearce's proposal this week. If it passes there, it will go to the Senate on its way to the November ballot, where voters would decide whether Maricopa County judges should again be elected.

Pearce did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, who supports the proposal and is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also did not respond to a request for comment.

If passed, the effects of the move could be wide-ranging.

For one, it stands a good chance of shifting the political balance of Maricopa County's courts.

Between the 1974 vote and the end of Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano's first term in office, the courts have seen close to an even number of Democrats (91) and Republicans (81) chosen for the bench, according to documents from the state Supreme Court.

But given Maricopa County's record of having not elected a Democrat for countywide office since 1988, McGregor said it's "inevitable" that the court would eventually fill up with Republican judges.

"I think that it's unlikely anything else would happen," she said.

Nationally, just as in Arizona, judicial elections are most often being pushed by conservatives. Some say they want to tame powerful judges. Others argue that it may be impossible to completely remove politics from the courts, so why not put the choice in the hands of the people, rather than a small panel of legal experts and the governor?

The latter argument is the one most in line with the Federalist Society, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative group that regularly pushes for judicial elections for states.

"In spite of the reformers' best intentions, politics inevitably surrounds the work of the nominating commissions," wrote several lawyers in a report published in 2003 by the group.

"The appearance of expertise and non-partisanship is largely, if not entirely, a facade," they wrote.

In Arizona, the proposal doesn't just target Maricopa County for change. Pima County, the state's only other region where judges are selected by the panel and governor, would also switch to elections.

Beyond that, smaller counties have a stake in the proposal, too. Under current law, smaller counties already have to elect their judges. But if a county grows above 250,000 people according to the most recent 10-year census, they automatically move to merit selection.

With the population boom continuing across the state, that means Pinal County and possibly Yuma and Yavapai counties would join Maricopa and Pima sometime after 2010.

Under the new proposal, though, none of that would happen.

That possibility worries the nine judges of the Pinal County Superior Court, all of whom were elected to their seats.

In a letter signed by the nine last month, they asked the Legislature to drop the idea and let the current system continue. They wrote that their opposition to the proposal was "unanimous."

"Some judges maintain that ... races are becoming more political, aggressive, negative and generally incompatible with the public's expectation of fair and impartial judges," they wrote. Others believe the races are becoming too expensive, they said.

That assessment lines up with judicial races taking place throughout the U.S.

In a report titled "The New Politics of Judicial Elections," the Washington, D.C.-based Justice at Stake Campaign documented races like one in 2006 in Illinois, where someone wanting to become a trial judge, the lowest rung in the state courts, raised $500,000 for his campaign.

In Georgia, one judge ran a TV ad accusing her opponent of threatening to kill his own sister.

In Maricopa and Pima counties, information about judges comes from a lengthy survey of many of the people who have done business in the judge's court. That information is then compiled and published for voters before the judge goes up for retention.

"That's the right kind of information that the voters should have, not based on their campaign commercials," said Malia Reddick of the American Judicature Society, a group that pushes for systems like the one Maricopa County has. "A return to contested elections would mean actually less information about judges on the bench."

If it were up to her, McGregor said she would want every judge in Arizona to be appointed. As for Pearce's proposal, she said: "Of course we'll oppose it as it goes along, because we think it's a bad thing to do."

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