An exercise in futility: The truth behind voting for judges

Our voices are silenced with sham retention ballot

Much is made about the fact that the names of Arizona judges appear on the ballot. The State Bar, the Arizona Supreme Court and the majority of judges and lawyers are quick to tell us that Arizona has an exemplary system. Our judiciary is selected by virtue of merit, hence the name, “Merit Selection.”

Judges, with staggered terms, appear on the general election ballot to be “retained.” The voters have the last word, we are told.

The truth is somewhat different from these melodic refrains.

First of all, Merit Selection, the scheme by which judges are appointed to the bench is a circuitous route, rife with just enough meanderings by lawyers, the governor and Supreme Court justices to render it incomprehensible to most citizens. For good measure, a few members of the public, carefully selected to represent political parties, are tossed into the mix. Merit is often far down the list of qualifications as the process of judicial selection takes form. The governor is then sent a final list — after whichever one of the three Merit Selection commissions has culled the original list down to the established percentage of political representatives. The appellate benches and the trial courts in the two most populous counties of Maricopa and Pima utilize this system by constitutional mandate, which decrees that all counties reaching the population threshold of 250,000 residents must participate.

A tidy process, to be sure. And so it has been since its inception in 1974. Along the way, a nip and tuck have been taken, but the selection system remains intentionally murky.

Arizonans have been given an assist, we are told, by the Commission on Judicial Performance Review, (JPR) which publishes a rating of all judges culled from questionnaires given to jurors, lawyers, litigants and witnesses. On the top of their web page, the question is asked and answered in this interesting turn of phrase: Who judges the judges? You do! We can help.

Not quite.

And although the group ranked one superior court judge with a miserably low rating, he was still retained by a margin of 3 to 2 on the recent ballot.

In nearly forty years, only two judges have been sent packing.

If you live in Maricopa or Pima counties, how much of a voice in the process do you think you actually have?

The voters in Arizona’s thirteen other counties currently have the ability to elect their judges. At least until the 2010 census numbers are calculated.  There is a high probability that least a couple  of those counties will have that basic right taken from them by virtue of population spikes, giving their votes to a controlled commission and a partisan governor.

So much for your voice.

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8 Responses to An exercise in futility: The truth behind voting for judges

  1. Scott says:

    It sounds as though the judicial retention ballot is a lot of smoke and mirrors. I moved here from Yavapai County where we elect our judges. The people are very satisfied with the system as it stands. I like accountability coupled with removability.

  2. Jana Simmons says:

    This is an informative post. I was unaware of a lot of the process. I didn’t know that the vast majority of AZ counties still elect their judges. It also sounds as though that won’t last for long as growth impacts some of the other areas of the state. This will be a huge issue for people in counties reaching those higher population levels. This must be flying under the radar, because I never hear it discussed.

  3. MacBeth says:

    The fact that the judge with the very low rating was overwhelmingly retained tells the story. These seem to be lifetime or as-long-as-you-want-them positions. There is no muscle backing up the retention process. It sounds to me like a feel good mechanism intended to make us think we have some say in the system, when we really have none!

  4. Night Owl says:

    Dare I admit…? I vote them ALL down.

  5. Ben L. says:

    Finally! Something in print about our Maricopa and Pima counties judges problem. It infuriates me that I am asked to vote on a name and have no idea in the world what that person stands for. I have actually telephoned all the different judges offices (on the 2006 ballot) just to ask the political party the judge was registered with. About 1 in 10 offices would tell me that much.

    Judges, campaigning for office would change all that. We would have the ability to ask questions of the candidates. Like you say, it’s been nearly 40 years since a Judge was not “retained.” So, they figure the system “ain’t broke–don’t fix it.” Well, the system is mightily broke when the voters have no earthly idea of what they are voting for.

    The next session of the legislature is the last opportunity to remedy this problem prior to the 2010 census. The population threshhold law must be changed. Pinal and Yavapai Counties are the next to drop their elections system and move into the category of “Merit Selection” if the problem is not solved before the 2010 census.

    Thank you for getting this conversation started Seeing Red AZ. We must build momentum to get this remedied. The voting public in Maricopa and Pima Counties know the current system is terribly flawed. Frankly, I vote all the judges NO as a protest to the current Merit System. For all I know I’m voting down conservative judges I would otherwise like, if I could find out any information about them.

    The Merit System is a joke. And the easy remedy to the problem is simply raising that population threshhold. That’s all-plain and simple.

  6. Stanford says:

    Good information. But how is this situation remedied? If the current law is in the AZ Constitution, wouldn’t it need to be repaired by a vote of the people? While I imagine that would be an easy sell to the voters, who would get the message out? Where would the funding come from? The state bar would be able to raise massive amounts to fight this purposeful legal inbreeding.
    Plus, it seems as though time is short to deal with this issue. Why hasn’t someone done something about raising this population limit long before now? Can someone answer these questions?

  7. Sideliner says:

    This last retention vote tells the whole story. Even when a judge is ranked by the judge’s own system with a non-recommendation for retention, that judge was retained. Their own process exposes the scam.

  8. CW says:

    As a protest, I have voted against retention of each and every judge since this ugly system was instituted. It’s a bad deal.