Arizona Advocacy Network

Government of, by and for the People

Arizonans casting votes this year will mark the 40th anniversary of one of their most successful efforts to improve state government.In 1974, voters adopted a merit selection system for choosing judges for the appellate courts and the Superior Courts in our largest counties. This system incorporates public involvement, transparency and accountability. And it has allowed Arizona's judiciary to earn a national reputation for fairness, efficiency and innovation.

My views may reflect that I was appointed to Arizona's Supreme Court under merit selection, and now, as chief justice, I oversee a judicial branch that includes 153 other merit-selected judges. But I am far from alone in praising Arizona's system.

Since 1974, merit selection has enjoyed the support of public figures like Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (who was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals in 1979 under merit selection), business leaders, civic groups like the League of Women Voters, and the general public. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said that "Arizona leads the nation" with its procedures for implementing nonpartisan merit selection.

At a recent Arizona Town Hall meeting, a broad cross-section of citizens concluded that Arizona has "one of the best state judiciaries in the nation" and that "this is mostly owing to the effects of merit selection, which produces high-quality, skilled judges who are independent of interests that would otherwise fund judicial elections."

Merit selection has succeeded because it involves the public in selecting well-qualified judges who are committed to fairly applying the law. When a judicial vacancy occurs, the position is publicly announced and interested lawyers are invited to apply. Lengthy applications describe each candidate's education, professional experience and other qualifications. The applications are posted on a court website for public review and comment.

Applications are then considered by a 16-person, nonpartisan judicial-nominating commission. There are now four such commissions, one for appellate judges and one each for Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties.

The chief justice or another justice chairs each commission but does not vote except when necessary to break a tie. The other 15 members include 10 non-lawyers and five lawyers, all of whom are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

Under our state Constitution, the commission members must include people from different political parties and geographic areas. Having chaired three of the commissions, I know that members work very hard to identify the most highly qualified candidates for judicial office.

Each commission meets in public to review applications and to interview selected candidates. At each stage, the public can submit written or oral comments, and commission members themselves seek input from lawyers, judges and the community. The commission publicly discusses the candidates and then votes to send a list of nominees to the governor. The list must include at least three nominees, and no more than two (or 60 percent if there are more than three nominees) can be from the same political party. The governor appoints one of the nominees from the list to fill the judicial vacancy.

Through this process, merit selection has resulted in the appointment of competent, impartial judges who are diverse in their personal and professional backgrounds.

Public input in ensuring the quality of our judiciary does not end once a judge is appointed. All merit-selected judges are subject to Judicial Performance Review, which the voters established in 1992.

As part of JPR, people who have appeared before judges are invited to complete written surveys on different aspects of judicial performance. The surveys are sent not only to lawyers, but also to litigants, witnesses, jurors, court staff and other judges. The responses are compiled and reviewed by a 30-person JPR commission, which includes 18 public members who are neither judges nor lawyers. The JPR commission solicits other public input and, after public meetings, considers whether judges meet judicial performance standards.

At the general election, the voters decide whether appellate judges will retain their offices for another six-year term and trial judges for another four-year term. People sometimes say they don't know much about the judges named in a long list at the end of the ballot. The list, I admit, can be daunting, but information about the judges is readily available.

The JPR commission's reports on whether judges meet the performance standards, as well as summaries of the survey results, are included in the Arizona Secretary of State's Office's publicity pamphlet for the election. This pamphlet is mailed to households that have one or more registered voters. Even more information about judges is available at the JPR commission's website: azjudges.info.

Some have observed that Arizona's voters do not often reject judges who are up for retention. This is true, but it is not a flaw in merit selection.

The system aims to identify well-qualified people for appointment. Their performance as judges is periodically reviewed with public input. Based on the surveys and the JPR commission's findings, all merit-selected judges work with the commission to develop plans to improve their judicial performance. Judges who violate their duties may be disciplined and even removed through a separate Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Retention elections serve as a backstop, allowing voters to reject those judges who, despite the other safeguards, do not meet the public's standards for holding judicial office. That the voters rarely do so suggests the system works.

This fall, I hope you will join me in celebrating the 40th anniversary of our merit selection system. I urge you to review the JPR reports and other information at azjudges.info and to exercise your right to vote on the judges seeking retention. It's worth the time to finish your ballot.

Scott Bales is chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.