Merit Selection

Judicial Merit Selection in Arizona

Merit selection is a method of choosing judges through a non-partisan commission, chaired by the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court or her designee, of 10 public members and five lawyers who investigate and evaluate judicial applicants. The commission submits names of at least three of the most highly qualified applicants to the governor of Arizona, who then makes the final selection. Two-thirds of the states in America and the District of Columbia use some form of merit selection to choose their judges.

Arizona has four judicial nominating commissions:

  1. The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments
  2. The Maricopa County Commission on Trial Court Appointments
  3. The Pima County Commission on Trial Court Appointments
  4. The Pinal County Commission on Trial Court Appointments

The primary rationale for merit selection is to avoid compromising judicial impartiality and integrity by forcing judges to solicit campaign contributions from attorneys and other persons who might someday appear before them in court.

History

1974: Arizona voters amended the State Constitution in 1974 to create a "merit selection and retention" system.  Merit selection requires the Governor to appoint appellate court judges statewide, and Superior Court judges in counties with a population greater than 250,000 from a list of nominees submitted by a judicial nominating commission. Previously, judges ran for election statewide.

1992: Arizona voters approved changes to the merit selection system. The changes made the membership of the judicial nominating commissions more diverse and increased the percentage of public members. Voters added requirements that the commissions hear public testimony and vote in public before making recommendations to the Governor. They also mandated that the commissions and the Governor consider the diversity of the state or county's population in making nominations and appointments.

How the Merit Selection Process Works

In counties with a population over 250,000, judges in Superior Court, Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court are all chosen through the merit selection process. Judicial candidates must submit thorough applications to a commission, which is comprised of mostly public members.

All commission members review the applications and investigate the applicants' qualifications. The commission then meets to decide which applicants will be interviewed. Further investigation of the selected applicants takes place before the interviews. After the interviews, the commission decides which candidates will be recommended to the Governor.

The commissions must submit at least three names to the Governor for each judicial appointment, with consideration given to ethnic and gender diversity. The primary consideration for judicial nominations is merit - the candidate's professional qualifications. The Constitution provides that no more than 60 percent of the nominees on any given list may be members of the same political party.

The Governor then appoints one of the finalists from the names submitted by the commission.

Once judges are appointed they must periodically be subject to retention election, which means voters decide if they get to keep their job on the bench. With significant input from jurors, litigants, court staff and attorneys, the Judicial Performance Review Commission assesses the performance of each judge to determine if he or she is meeting judicial performance standards. The commission then makes that information available to the public before the retention election.
 
A judge is allowed to continue to serve if he or she gets approval of the majority of voters.

Public Input

Strong public involvement in the merit selection process ensures a democratic process.

  • Public members make up the majority of every judicial nominating commission. Each commission is comprised of 10 public members, 5 attorneys and the chair, who is the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court or her designee.
  • The public can attend all nominating commissions hearings during which judicial candidates are interviewed and the commission members vote.
  • The public has a strong voice in the evaluation of judges through the judicial performance review process. Jurors, witnesses, litigants, visitors and court staff who have observed the judge at work are given a survey to help evaluate the judge's performance.
  • Voters have the power to remove or retain judges from office during retention elections.

Balance and Accountability

Many checks and balances in the merit selection system ensure accountability:

  • The Constitution requires a periodic performance review of appointed judges, which is done by the Commission on Judicial Performance. The JPR commission strives to provide clear and accurate reports to the public about how well judges are doing their jobs in a report issued before each general election.
  • The performance evaluation process of JPR includes surveys of jurors, witnesses, litigants, administrative staff and attorneys who have observed the judge at work.
  • The Commission on Judicial Conduct can penalize or remove Judges for poor conduct.
  • The merit selection nominating commissions must be politically balanced, with no more than 60 percent of its members from one political party.
  • Members of the judicial selection commissions are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate.
  • The State Bar of Arizona recommends candidates to the Governor to fill the attorney members positions on the three commissions.

Benefits of Merit Selection:

Highly qualified judiciary - Merit selection produces a high quality group of candidates who can only be recommended after a thorough review by a diverse group of commissioners. Merit selection produces a better pool of applicants because the most qualified attorneys are often unwilling to risk their practice on an expensive political campaign that would be required if they needed to run for election.

Encourages diversity on the bench - Since the Constitution directs the commissions to consider a wide range of diversity, an increased number of minorities and women have been appointed to the bench.

Fosters impartiality - Merit selection improves judicial impartiality because judges don't accept campaign contributions from any person, business or organization. Sometimes judges are required to make unpopular decisions to uphold the law and the constitution. Judges who must depend on winning re-election to keep their jobs may be unable to remain impartial because they fear that some campaign contributors will penalize them for making one or two unpopular decisions among the hundreds they make each year.

Public accountability - The public has input in many steps of the process, which includes selecting judges and deciding whether they have performed well enough to keep their jobs. The Judicial Performance Review includes public members in its evaluation system and distributes the final results to the public.  In merit selection counties, voters decide whether judges keep their jobs during retention elections.