Frequent readers of this page know that we consider access to government records, the freedom of information, to be among the most cherished liberties. Knowledge enables the public to keep government from engaging in secret, unilateral, improper acts.
Thus we often criticize government agencies or officials who try to thwart the complete exercise of that freedom by wrongfully withholding public records or barring access to what should be public meetings.
Today, however, we commend the Arizona Supreme Court, which, on the motion of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, opened virtually all records of the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct to public access. As reported by reporter Gary Grado in Wednesday’s Tribune, this access, set forth in rules becoming effective on Sunday, is to begin after the commission’s next meeting in March.
Grado learned that previously, only records of serious sanctions against state court judges, as well as a few minor sanctions, were available. Now, all sanctions, plus records of dismissed allegations against judges, will be public records.
The names of sanctioned judges will be public as well. And while the state will continue to keep secret the names of judges who have been the subjects of complaints later dismissed, as commission executive director Keith Stott told Grado, "At least (the public) will be able to see the kinds of allegations that are being dismissed."
This represents a milestone in the cause of freedom of information. The state’s highest court has upheld that freedom over the desires of several judges with objections to releasing this information. This indeed was no small act of courage.
And yet we note that, as Grado learned from commission records, 83 percent of all complaints were dismissed in 2004 — which means many records will still not contain judges’ names. A spokesman for the county attorney’s office told the Tribune that it will continue to pursue the opening all such records.
More information about judicial conduct is sorely needed by Maricopa County voters, who every two years must decide whether to retain dozens of Superior Court judges. Such information has been scarce. The State Bar of Arizona’s attorneys’ survey has been virtually voters’ only source about judicial conduct.
The state’s highest court has taken a praiseworthy step toward enabling the people of Arizona to act more definitively to set limits on the scope of government power.