What is Merit Selection and how does it work?
“Merit selection” is the name commonly used to described the method by which judges are selected to serve on the Arizona Supreme Court, two Courts of Appeals, and the Superior Courts in those counties with populations exceeding 250,000 (Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal Counties). The process begins with a non-partisan judicial nominating commission, one for each County and another for the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals. Each commission consists of five attorneys, ten public members, and is chaired by a Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
When a vacancy occurs, the relevant commission accepts applications, which are posted online for public review and comments. The commission interviews applicants in a public hearing and then submits a list of at least three qualified candidates to the Governor, who makes the final selection. Judges selected through this process serve an initial term of two years, at which time they stand for retention through an uncontested yes-or-no election following a Judicial Performance Review. Retained judges serve a subsequent six-year term.
Why Merit Selection?
Championed in its infancy by Sandra Day O’Connor, the merit selection process was adopted in 1974 through a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment. In the words of Chief Justice Scott Bales, Arizona’s merit selection process “has allowed Arizona’s judiciary to earn a national reputation for fairness, efficiency, and innovation.” The use of a commission rather than direct elections ensures judges are insulated from the influence of special interests. A 2013 study by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy on “the effects of campaign contributions on judicial behavior” uncovered a troubling trend: the more contributions judges receive from business interests, the more likely they are to rule in favor of business litigants appearing in court, with judges who receive half their funding from business interests reliably ruling in favor of these interests two-thirds of the time. At the point where Citizens United has caused our democratic institutions to confound corporations with people and money with speech, protecting judicial independence remains of paramount importance. Furthermore, the advent of retention elections and Judicial Performance Review ensures judges are beholden to those who ultimately decide whether or not they remain on the bench: the citizens of Arizona.
What is Judicial Performance Review?
Established through a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment in 1992, Judicial Performance Review (JPR) gives citizens the opportunity to evaluate the performance of justices appointed through merit selection. JPR is administered by the Commission on Judicial Performance Review, a group mostly made of members from the general public. The JPR Commission is responsible for collecting survey data from jurors, witnesses, litigants, attorneys, and court staff who have observed one or more of the judges under review. Once these results are received, the JPR Commission decides whether a judge either “Meets” or “Does Not Meet” judicial performance standards. The Commission’s evaluations and survey results are then recorded in the Secretary of State’s Voter Information Packet. From here, voters in the general election have the ultimate say as to whether or not a judge is retained for a consecutive term.
Many of Arizona's courts are not part of the merit selection system. Learn about those courts here.