Arizona’s Approach to Selecting Judges and Justices

Arizona’s Approach to Selecting Judges and Justices is Unique to our nation

It’s election season and in Arizona, voters are asked every six years whether a judge or justice should keep their job: thus the long list of judges on our ballots.

Arizona is unique to other states when it comes to the way in which it elects/appoints judges to the bench. In many states, Judges must be elected by the people. They run partisan or non-partisan campaigns, depending on the state, and must do so again at the end of their term to keep their job. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some states appoint their judges, either by committee, by the governor, or by the legislature. These appointments are often for life. For a complete list of how all states select their judges, check out Ballotpedia’s interactive site (https://ballotpedia.org/Judicial_selection_in_the_states) . Arizona fills a space between these two ends of the spectrum with its appointment and retention elections of judges.

By law, in any Arizona County with more than 250,000 residents (Maricopa, Pima, Pinal), Supreme Court Justices, and Appeals Court and Superior Court Judges are appointed by the Governor. Once a vacancy appears in one of these counties, a non-partisan committee will select three potential candidates to fill that seat. The Governor then selects from this short list. Once a judge is appointed, he/she must appear on a ballot every six years where voters can vote to either retain said judge or reject their retention. Prior to the retention election, the Commission on Judicial Performance Review will evaluate each judge up for retention and will release a report regarding the performance of each judge. This merit selection method was enacted by Arizona voters in 1974.

If a judge receives more rejection than retention votes, that judge is removed from his/her position and a new judge will be selected by the committee to be appointed by the Governor.

In Arizona’s twelve other counties, Superior Court judges are elected by voters. They must run non-partisan campaigns. Yavapai County, home to Prescott, may soon join Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal in the appointment of judges. At the last census in 2010, the county had more than 210,000 residents and it continues to see growth.

While Arizonans have occasionally removed Superior Court judges from their positions, they have never removed an Appellate or Supreme Court Justice. The goal of this system is to remove “politics” from the selection process yet retain a population’s ability to remove a judge who is failing. Judges and justices are required to retire at the age of 70.

In Arizona, as in all states, Superior Court Judges play a vital role in upholding the laws of the state and upholding citizens’ constitutional rights. Supreme Court Justices and Appeals Court Judges play an equally vital and often overlooked role in shaping and interpreting Arizona laws. It is important that we, as Arizonans, exercise our right to vote in every election.

For more information on merit selection see Arizona’s Judicial branch website. (https://www.azcourts.gov/jnc/Frequently-Asked-Questions)

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