Judicial Nominating Commissions (Merit Selection of Judges)
Voters amended the Arizona 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, Pima, and Pinal counties from a list of nominees submitted by judicial nominating commissions. The Constitution allows counties other than Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal to elect the merit selection system for their county, which Coconino County did in 2018. Superior court judges in Arizona’s other 11 counties continue to seek office in contested elections.
The Commissions on Judicial Appointments, also known as judicial nominating commissions, are responsible for recommending individuals to fill judicial vacancies in appellate courts and the superior courts in Coconino, Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal 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.
Each of the five nominating commissions — Coconino County Commission on Trial Court Appointments, Maricopa County Commission on Trial Court Appointments, Pima County Commission on Trial Court Appointments, Pinal 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 five 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 five commissions are nominated to the Governor by the Board of Governors of the State Bar of Arizona. All 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.
If a commission fails to submit names for appointment consideration to the Governor within 60 days of a vacancy, the Governor may appoint any qualified person to fill the judicial vacancy. If the Governor fails to appoint one of the commission’s nominees within 60 days after the names are submitted, the Chief Justice makes the appointment.
A judge appointed to the bench under the merit system initially holds office for a two-year term. The judge’s first term ends 60 days after the next regular general election following their appointment. The judge then seeks retention, where voters indicate yes or no as to whether the judge should remain in office. If retained, superior court judges serve a full regular term of four years before their next retention election. Judges appointed to the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court serve a full regular term of six years before their next retention election. If a judge is not retained, the office is vacated when the judge’s current term expires, and the appropriate commission begins the nominating process to fill the vacancy.
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.
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 determine whether 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, unless formal charges are filed against a judge. When formal charges are filed, 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. For a handbook, contact the Commission on Judicial Conduct, 1501 West Washington, Suite 229, Phoenix, Arizona 85007-3231, (602) 452-3200.
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.
• Violating the Code of Judicial Conduct.