Real Elections for Judges Proposed
Thomas Offers Reforms to Improve Accountability to the Public
Calls on Opponent Tom Horne to Join in Reform Movement
PHOENIX, ARIZONA. JUNE 14, 2010. In an effort to ensure better accountability and meaningful elections for members of the Arizona judiciary, former Maricopa County Attorney and Attorney General candidate Andrew Thomas announced today a plan that would require real elections of judges as well as other reforms.
Currently, a group of insider attorneys unaccountable to the public selects Arizona’s appellate judges and Superior Court judges in Maricopa and Pima Counties. The names of these judges then appear on the ballot at election time for “retention elections,” which in reality are meaningless exercises for the voters. Thomas is pledging to ask the Arizona Legislature to refer to the ballot a package of judicial-reform measures to address this situation.
At the heart of these reforms is a requirement that the Secretary of State’s Office mail to all voters before the general election public comments for and against the retention of judges whose names are on the ballot that year. At this time, the Secretary of State’s Office provides such information to voters regarding ballot measures but not judges.
Currently, voters are given no meaningful information about judges at election time and have no way of obtaining it on their own. As a result, judges are almost always retained. This includes judges such as Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Philip Marquardt, who was reelected in 1988 even after being convicted of a drug offense.
Under Thomas’ plan, the Secretary of State would solicit public comments on all judges up for a retention election from the attorney general, sheriffs, county attorneys and county public defenders, and other stakeholders in the criminal justice system. The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission would be required to provide the Secretary of State with a listing and analysis of judicial rulings which impact public safety, or which overturn laws or ballot measures, given by each judge up for retention. Any citizen could pay the same fee required for submitting a “for” or “against” argument on a ballot measure in the Secretary of State’s voter handbook and submit a similar argument regarding judges on the ballot that year. The Secretary of State would in turn provide that information to the voters. Judges subject to retention elections are justices of the Arizona Supreme Court, judges on the Arizona Court of Appeals, and Superior Court judges in Maricopa and Pima Counties.
Every election year, the Commission on Judicial Performance Review sends out a booklet to voters which provides little to no meaningful information for voters to assess judges up for retention. The guide notably excludes individual comments from law enforcement officials and other credible people who have witnessed or been impacted negatively by a judge’s misconduct or political biases. Nearly all judges rated are given a passing grade of “meets judicial performance standards.”
Another key part of the plan is breaking up the monopoly of insider attorneys who determine judicial selections. Under the Thomas plan, the names of all legally qualified attorneys who apply for judicial vacancies would be forwarded to the governor for potential selection. Currently, a group of insider attorneys pick and forward the names of only three candidates for an open position. The three current commissions on judicial appointments in Arizona would still be permitted to rank the names of applicants, but the governor would be allowed to select any legally qualified attorney. This appointee then would have to stand for a retention election.
Pinal County is set to lose its elected judges in two years due to population growth. Thomas would seek to amend the law to ensure Pinal County retains its elected judges. Currently, only Maricopa and Pima Counties have the so-called merit system, which is actually an insider system unaccountable to the public.
Finally, the disciplinary process for judges would no longer be secret but open to the public. And state agencies would be set up in the executive branch to govern regulation of attorneys and judges, with boards that would include members of the public who are not attorneys. This change will shed light on the process, improve accountability to the public for both judges and attorneys, and prohibit the State Bar and judiciary from targeting critics of the judiciary or promoting liberal causes with attorney’s mandatory fees, abuses that have occurred under the current system.
“These reforms will make our judiciary more open and accountable to the public,” Thomas said. “It will give voters real information about judges and help ensure that retention elections are no longer a meaningless and frustrating exercise by the voters.”
Appearing alongside Thomas at a press conference were Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and community anti-crime activists Bob and JoAnn Hartle, President and Treasurer of ID Theft Services Inc.; Donna Neill, Director of NAILEM; and Linda Kleiner, founder of Together Against Graffiti. Also supporting the reforms is Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.
"This effort is necessary. The public has a right to know more information about the judges whose names appear on the ballot come election time," said Sheriff Arpaio. “We will be able to better ensure accountability and meaningful elections for the Arizona judiciary.”
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu stated, “"We need our judges to be accountable to the people. I support this reform package and making sure our judges in Pinal County continue to be elected."
Thomas called on his Republican opponent, Tom Horne, to embrace these reforms. Horne, a liberal former Democrat, has been notably silent about tackling the issue of judicial activism and ensuring greater accountability from the bench.
Paid for by Thomas for AG