Judicial Nominating Commissions (Merit Selection of Judges)
Arizona voters amended their constitution in 1974 to provide for a judicial merit selection and retention process. This amendment requires the governor to appoint appellate court judges statewide and superior court judges in Maricopa and Pima Counties from a list of nominees submitted by judicial nominating commissions. Although the constitution allows counties other than Maricopa and Pima the option of merit selection, superior court judges in Arizona’s other 13 counties continue to seek office in contested elections.
The Commissions on Judicial Appointments, also known as Judicial Nominating Commissions, are responsible for nominating individuals to fill judicial vacancies in appellate courts and the superior courts in Maricopa and Pima Counties.
In 1992, Arizona voters approved the first changes to the merit selection process since it was adopted in 1974. The changes modify the process for appointing superior court and appellate court judges, including adding the requirements that judicial nominating commissions hear public testimony and vote in public before making recommendations to the governor, who then appoints new judges from the recommendations of the commissions.
An increased level of participation includes committees that screen and recommend candidates to the governor to serve on the three nominating commissions. There are 11 of these committees — five each for the Maricopa County and Pima County nominating commissions and one for the statewide appellate nominating commission.
Each of the three nominating commissions — Maricopa County Commission on Trial Court Appointments, Pima County Commission on Trial Court Appointments and the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments — has 16 members: 10 non-attorneys and five attorneys, plus the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or a designated Supreme Court justice, who serves as a voting chairperson for all three commissions.
When vacancies occur for non-attorney members of the trial court nominating commissions, a county board of supervisors’ member, from the district in which the vacancy occurred, appoints a nominating committee of seven persons from the district. Public notice is given that applications are being accepted for appointment to the commission. All applications, along with the committee’s recommendations, are forwarded to the governor for consideration.
When a non-attorney vacancy occurs on the appellate court commission, the governor appoints a nominating committee of nine members who solicit and review applications, and forward names of all applicants along with the committee’s recommendation to the governor.
Attorney members of the three commissions are nominated to the governor by the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Arizona.
Members of the commissions are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The commissions submit at least three names to the governor for each judicial appointment, with major consideration given to geographic and ethnic diversity. The primary criterion for judicial selection is merit — the candidates’ professional qualifications.
Should a commission fail to submit names for appointment consideration to the governor within 60 days of the vacancy occurrence, the governor may appoint any qualified person to fill the judicial vacancy. Should the governor fail to appoint one of the commission’s nominees within 60 days after the names are submitted, the Chief Justice makes the appointment.
Commission on Judicial Performance Review
Arizona’s judicial performance review program strives to provide clear and accurate reports to the public about how well judges are doing their jobs before each general election. In 1992, voters amended the Arizona Constitution to require periodic review of the performance of appointed judges. The Commission on Judicial Performance Review was established to administer the performance evaluation process.
The constitution requires evaluations of judges appointed through the merit selection process, using specific performance standards and performance reviews. The performance evaluation process includes surveys of jurors, witnesses, litigants, administrative staff and attorneys who have observed the judge at work. The public also provides input through written comment and public hearings. Reports on judicial performance are prepared by the commission and are made available to the voters before general elections.
Judges appointed to the bench under the Merit System:
- initially hold office for a term ending 60 days following the next regular general election after the expiration of a term of two years in office;
- seek election where voters indicate yes or no as to whether the judge should remain in office; and,
- If retained, will serve a full regular term of four years for superior court or six years for appellate court. If a judge is not retained, the office is vacated upon expiration of the term and the appropriate commission begins the nominating process to fill the vacancy.
How Judges Get Into Office
Judges who are screened and selected by public committees and appointed by the governor are:
- Supreme Court Justices;
- Court of Appeals Judges;
- Superior Court in Maricopa County Judges; and,
- Superior Court in Pima County Judges.
Once appointed, the judges are retained or rejected by the voters every four years for superior court and six years for the appellate courts.
Judges who are elected are:
Superior court judges from the following counties: Apache, Cochise, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Mohave, Navajo, Pinal, Santa Cruz, Yavapai and Yuma (all counties excluding Maricopa and Pima); and, justices of the peace.
City magistrates/municipal judges are usually appointed according to the law governing the city or municipality. The citizens of Yuma elect their municipal judge. Phoenix and Tucson municipal court judges are nominated by a merit commission.
Commission on Judicial Conduct
As authorized by the Arizona Constitution, the Commission on Judicial Conduct is charged with reviewing and investigating complaints against state and local judges and other judicial officers. The commission DOES NOT have authority to investigate a judge’s decision in a court case or to determine whether or not a court ruling may be appealed.
The commission has 11 members with diverse backgrounds and broad experience, both in and out of the court system. Six members are judges appointed by the Supreme Court: two from the court of appeals, two from superior court, one from a justice court and one from a municipal court.
The commission’s two attorney members are appointed by the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Arizona. The three public members cannot be attorneys or judges and are appointed by the governor with the consent of the Arizona Senate. Commission members serve six year terms.
The commission has authority to discipline a judge informally and to issue private sanctions for improper conduct. The commission also has the power to initiate a formal proceeding, much like a trial, to determine the facts in a particular situation and to recommend to the Supreme Court that it censure, suspend or remove a judge for serious misconduct.
The activities and proceedings of the commission are confidential except when formal charges are filed against a judge. When this happens, the commission’s investigation becomes public and all proceedings, including the formal hearing, are open to the public.
The commission publishes a handbook fully describing its programs and procedures. This information may be obtained by contacting the Commission on Judicial Conduct, 1501 West Washington, Suite 229, Phoenix, Arizona 85007-3231, (602) 542-5200.
Duties of the Commission on Judicial Conduct
The commission investigates complaints involving:
- Misconduct in office;
- Misconduct in or out of office involving a criminal conviction;
- Disabilities that seriously interfere with the judge’s performance of judicial duties;
- Willful and persistent failure to perform duties;
- Habitual substance abuse (addiction to alcohol or drugs);
- Conduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute; and,
- Violating the Code of Judicial Conduct.