We have written extensively about the importance of Arizona's Judicial Merit Selection System. In 2013, Ted Schmidt, who then served on the Commission for Appellate Court Appointments was a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit challenging the actions of the Legislature as they attempted to gut the process. Every living, retired Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court signed on to serve as lawyers for the plaintiffs.
Quickly -- in 1974, through a Constitutional Amendment voted on by the people of Arizona, a system was created that sought to both remove base politics from the selection of judges and to ensure that the Governor had a slate of qualified candidates from which to make appointments. Merit Selection, as it is commonly called, has been a hallmark of Arizona's justice system and a national gold-standard.
Merit Selection is in place in Arizona's three most populous counties -- Maricopa, Pima, and recently Pinal. It is how Superior Court judges, as well as Court of Appeals and Supreme Court jurists are vetted and eventually selected. There are no elections, no street signs, and no websites.
Other judicial offices, though, are filled through popular vote. And that is a terrible thing. You need look no further than the current race for Pima County Justice of the Peace to see that. The race has included everything that makes campaigning to be a judge a horrible idea -- hyperbolic claims, hand lettered street signs that undermine the integrity and credibility of an officer of the court, websites with comically bad addresses, and empty threats of libel, slander and defamation. Thank goodness the campaign budgets are modest in this race, I can only imagine the parade of horribles we would see on TV.
In some of the statements both candidates have published, they take shots at the background, legal experience and clients of the other -- derisively calling an opponent an ambulance chaser and collections lawyer. The Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct governs judges. Canon 1 is, "A judge shall uphold and promote the independence of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety." Canon 4 states, " A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in a campaign or political activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity or impartiality of the judiciary."
It would seem that both candidates have run afoul of these clear rules. Whether its slanted commentary on past behavior or belittling a class of clients, this stuff has no place in the justice system. It does nothing but erode the public's trust and confidence in the system and in the cornerstone belief that everyone is treated fairly and impartially inside a courtroom.
Merit Selection works. Qualified candidates are interviewed by a diverse panel of lawyers and non-lawyers. The most qualified candidates are selected and sent to the governor for personal interviews and final selection. Sitting judges are reviewed by committees of lawyers and non-lawyers. Their performance is also reviewed by lawyers, parties and witnesses who appear in their courtrooms. This information is digested and reported to the public. In advance of every election cycle, the Commission on Judicial Performance reports whether the judge MEETS or DOES NOT MEET performance standards. Voters can take action to remove judges at the ballot box. But there is no campaigning and no solicitation of campaign funds.
Merit Selection continues to come under attack; by last count, at least 14 times since 1974. Incremental changes and improvements have been made and can certainly be discussed. But the Pima County Justice of the Peace election of 2014 is Exhibit A for the case against elected judges.