An Arizona Republic editorial this week was highly critical of legislative proposals concerning the method by which state appellate court judges and in Pima and Maricopa county judges are appointed and retained. The editorial argues that no changes are necessary because the system "ain't broke."
The editorial fails to recognize that the struggle to maintain an independent judiciary that is accountable to the people existed before Arizona was even a state. President Taft vetoed Arizona's original bid to join the union in 1911 because the state constitution provided for the recall of judges. The provision was removed, but inserted back into the constitution after Arizona was granted statehood. It's still part of our constitution today.
The Arizona Constitution also contains sections enacted in 1974 and 1992 that were further attempts to maintain the balance between independence and accountability. One way the system is supposed to do this is through retention elections. However, as an upcoming Goldwater Institute report card on the judiciary points out, no judge in Maricopa or Pima counties has been ousted in the past 26 years. Even judges facing criminal charges have been kept on the bench. Voters retained every Arizona Supreme Court justice since the creation of the merit selection system in 1974. The margins by which they've been retained have remained fairly consistent as well. For example, Supreme Court justices received an average of 75.8 percent in favor of their individual retention from 1992 through 2004. During that same period, no justice received less than 69.5 percent in favor of his or her retention.
The system is supposed to work by providing voters with information on whether each judge should be retained. But even Justice Jones recently acknowledged that voters may not be receiving enough information. The upcoming Goldwater Institute report card will be released in conjunction with the Goldwater Institute State of the Judiciary Conference on April 8, 2005. The report card and conference are designed to provide information to the public and policymakers to ensure the system for the selection of judges works the way it should.