Judicial Performance Review
Prior to 1974, judges in Arizona were elected by popular vote. This election process applied to all judicial positions from the trial court level up to and including justices to the Arizona Supreme Court. Although many fine judges were elected, there was always the concern that the required impartiality of our jurist could be conflicted by election concerns or possibly influenced by campaign contributions.
In 1974, the election of judges in Arizona changed by Constitutional Amendment. Now, justices to the Arizona Supreme Court, judges to the Court of Appeals and trial court judges in counties with a population over 250,000 (currently Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties) are no longer subject to election. Instead, the Constitutional Amendment allows for the Governor to appointment judges through a process known as Merit Selection.
In the larger counties, the Governor and the State Bar of Arizona jointly appoint a Commission charged with screening, for merit, judicial applicants. The Commission reviews applications, conducts interviews and otherwise investigates the applicants. The Commission ultimately provides the Governor with a minimum of three names or nominees for the open judicial post. The Governor then selects one of the nominated applicants for appointment.
All appointed judges are then subject to Judicial Performance Review every two years when surveys are conducted of practicing attorneys, litigants, jurors, court staff and fellow judges. These surveys are designed to identify a particular judge’s strengths and weaknesses. A Committee is appointed to discuss the surveys with the particular judge in an effort at improving the particular judge’s performance.
Unlike the federal system, judicial appointments in Arizona are not for life. Each judge serves a 4 year term and then is subject to a “retention” vote. This is the opportunity for the public to express its approval or disapproval of a particular judge’s performance by voting either “yes” or “no” to retain the judge for another 4 years. In the event of a judge’s rejection by the public in the retention vote, the process begins anew with new applicants applying, screening by the Commission and ultimately the most meritorious being nominated to the Governor for consideration.
Arizona’s method of Merit Selection has been widely praised and used as a model across the United States. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, October 2009, said “Arizona leads the nation with the procedure it has put in place to fill the promise of a true non-partisan ‘Merit Selection’”.