Questions and Answers regarding the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct
About the Commission
1. What is the Commission on Judicial Conduct?
Article 6.1 of the Arizona Constitution created the Commission on Judicial Conduct (Commission) to serve as an independent state agency. The Commission’s purpose is to investigate complaints about alleged unethical conduct by judicial officers and to prosecute, when appropriate, formal charges of alleged judicial misconduct.
2. Who Are the Members of the Commission and How Did They Get Appointed?
There are eleven (11) members of the Commission and their appointment process and terms are set by the Arizona Constitution. Six (6) members are judicial officers, appointed by the Arizona Supreme Court. Within that six, there are two court of appeals judges, two superior court judges, one justice of the peace, and one municipal court judge. Two (2) members are attorneys appointed by the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Arizona. Three (3) members are citizens of the state who are not judges, retired judges, or attorneys, and they are appointed by the Governor, and must be confirmed by the State Senate.
3. Over Whom Does the Commission Have Authority?
The Commission has authority and jurisdiction over all judicial officers in the state including appellate court, superior court, municipal court, and justice court judicial officers whether full time or part time. This authority and jurisdiction extends to retired judicial officers for conduct that occurred during the time they served as a judge. For more details on the application of the Code of Judicial Conduct to specific categories of judicial officers, see the Application section of the Code.
4. Are There Any Judges Over Whom the Commission Does Not Have Authority?
The Commission does NOT have any authority or jurisdiction over state executive department administrative law judges or federal judicial officers (magistrates, bankruptcy court judges, district court judges, appellate court judges, and U.S. Supreme Court justices).
Judicial Misconduct Complaints
a. What is Judicial Misconduct?
Judicial misconduct usually involves conduct that violates the standards set forth in the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct. Some examples of judicial misconduct are: rude or abusive demeanor; a conflict of interest; abuse of the contempt power; communicating improperly with only one side to a proceeding; unreasonable delay in decision-making; commenting publicly on a pending case; and prohibited political activity. Judicial misconduct can involve conduct that occurred off the bench as well as conduct that occurred while a judge is serving in his or her official capacity.
b. Who Can File a Complaint?
Any individual or group may file a complaint. The Commission has, in the past, received complaints from litigants; attorneys; jurors; court-watchers; court personnel; prisoners; court administrators; members of the public; and other judges. Anyone who has knowledge of possible judicial misconduct may file a complaint, and other judges may be required to report misconduct in certain circumstances, based on Rule 2.15 of the Code. The Commission also considers complaints made anonymously and matters it learns of in other ways such as from news articles or information received during a Commission investigation.
c. Will Filing a Complaint Affect my Ability to Appeal my Court Case?
No. Commission investigations and prosecutions are separate from and have no effect on other legal proceedings. You should NOT wait for a response from the Commission before you appeal your case or take any other action you deem appropriate in a lawsuit.
d. How Long Does the Complaint Process Take?
Every case is unique and it is not possible to predict the time frame that will be required to complete an investigation and resolve a case. The factors involved in the length of time required are: whether the investigation requires obtaining and reviewing court records, including transcripts or recordings; whether additional witnesses must be interviewed; and whether the Commission’s Disciplinary Counsel is currently prosecuting one or more formal cases.
2. Complaint Process
The process for dealing with complaints is set forth in the Commission Rules.
a. How Do I File A Complaint?
Complaints against judicial officers for ethical misconduct MUST be filed in writing – the Commission cannot accept your complaint orally either over the phone or in person. The complaint form you should use is available on our website here. If you choose to submit your complaint via letter or without the complaint form, you must include all of the information requested in the complaint form in order to ensure you complaint will be processed.
b. What Is My Role In the Complaint Process?
The person or group filing a complaint is not a party to the investigation or prosecution. Rather, your role as a complainant is limited to that of a witness.
c. Should I Attach Copies of Documents, Transcripts, or Statements of Other Witnesses From My Case?
If you have documents, transcripts, recordings, or witness statements that substantiate your ethical misconduct allegations, please feel free to provide them. To the extent you are attaching documents to prove that the judge made an incorrect legal decision, you do not need to provide those documents because the Commission does not have any authority to review the legal sufficiency of any judicial ruling. That is what the appeal process is for.
d. What Happens to My Complaint After Filing?
Step One: your complaint is reviewed to determine whether there are allegations of judicial misconduct. A complaint that only alleges that a judge has made a legal error or serves as an attempt to appeal legal rulings is NOT a complaint of judicial misconduct. Such complaints will be dismissed as outside the Commission’s jurisdiction.
Step Two: if your complaint raises allegations of ethical misconduct, Commission staff will investigate to determine whether there is evidence to support the allegations. An investigation includes everything from reviewing court recordings and documents; materials submitted with the complaint; requesting and reviewing a response to the allegations from the judge; and interviewing relevant witnesses.
Step Three: once the initial investigation is complete, the matter will be reviewed by the commission to determine whether it can be resolved informally or must be resolved through a formal process. Every member of the commission reviews every complaint recommended for dismissal by commission staff and action is taken by majority vote of the members voting (individual commission members may from time to time recuse themselves from reviewing a particular complaint in accordance with the standard for disqualification set forth in the Code of Judicial Conduct or as otherwise deemed appropriate by the member).
Informal cases may be resolved by the Commission with a dismissal, a dismissal with a private comment to the judge pointing out commission concerns, or a public reprimand.
A formal case will involve the filing of formal charges and a formal hearing. The Commission can still resolve the matter with a dismissal or reprimand, or it can make a recommendation for the Supreme Court to impose a formal sanction such as a public censure, a suspension, or even removal from office.
The foregoing is only a brief summary of the process. For more details on the Commission’s procedures, review the Commission Rules, in particular Rules 20-29.
e. Can I Appeal the Commission’s Decision?
If the Commission dismisses your complaint you may submit a motion for reconsideration within 15 days of the date of the dismissal order. Commission Rule 23 governs this process.
f. Is My Complaint Confidential?
All complaints filed with the Commission will be made public at some point; the degree and timing of making the matter public depends on how your case is resolved.
Dismissals: the complaint and order of dismissal are made public after the time for a motion for reconsideration is over. All identifying information for the complainant and the judge is redacted before the documents are made available to the public.
Reprimands: the complaint, judge’s response, and reprimand order are made public after the time for a motion for reconsideration and for the judge to request a formal hearing is over.
Formal Cases: when formal charges are filed against a judge, and the judge files his answer or the time for filing the answer ends, everything subsequently filed in the case is available to the public.
Most information that is available to the public is available on our website here. For more information on the rules on the confidentiality of commission proceedings and records, review Commission Rule 9.
3. Judicial Sanctions
a. What Can the Commission Do to a Judge Who Has Committed Misconduct?
The Commission’s authority to impose sanctions is limited: the only sanction the Commission can impose on its own is a public reprimand in informal cases. In more serious, formal cases, the Commission can make recommendations to the Supreme Court, which will ultimately determine what sanction, if any, to impose. The formal sanctions available to the Arizona Supreme Court are: public censure, suspension, and removal. In addition to these sanctions, the Commission and the Court have the ability to impose additional conditions such as requiring additional education or training, counseling, or assessing fees and costs associated with Commission proceedings.
For more information on sanctions, review Commission Rules 16-19.
b. Can the Commission Change a Legal Ruling?
No, the Commission has no authority relating to a judge’s legal ruling – the Commission cannot review such rulings as that is the province of the appellate courts. The Commission cannot direct the judge to change his or her rulings and has no ability to intervene in an ongoing case.
c. Can the Commission Order a New Judge to Take Over?
No, filing a complaint with the Commission will not itself result in getting you a new judge. Judges are instructed not to take themselves off a case simply because an ethical complaint is filed, but only when they determine that the standards for judicial disqualification have been met. Those standards are found in Rule 2.11 of the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct and other applicable court rules.