Former Justice Ruth McGregor speaks at the 2013 State Bar of Arizona Convention -- and now in the Washington Post.

Former Justice Ruth McGregor speaks at the 2013 State Bar of Arizona Convention — and now in the Washington Post.

On Sunday, readers of the Washington Post were treated to an opinion piece co-authored by Arizona’s own Ruth McGregor, a retired Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Titled “Keep politics out of the courthouse,” the essay was co-written by Randall Shepard, a fellow retired justice of the Indiana Supreme Court.

The news hook for their salvo against improper political influence was a recent awful occurrence in Oklahoma. As they describe it:

“The chaos surrounding the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett was not just a wake-up call on capital punishment and how it is administered. The final hours also saw political efforts to bully and weaken Oklahoma’s courts. Similar battles are playing out around the country, threatening the ability of our courts to be fair and impartial.”

“When Lockett’s attorneys filed a lawsuit seeking information about the drug mixture that ultimately failed, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay to grant more time for review. But the governor announced that she would disregard the court’s ruling. A legislator introduced a resolution to impeach the five justices who had voted for the stay, alleging ‘a willful neglect of duty and incompetence.’ The Supreme Court ultimately dissolved its stay and allowed Lockett’s execution to proceed.”

Did you get that? The governor looked at a court-issued stay and said, “Nope. Not gonna do it.

(You may recall reading that Lockett’s subsequent execution went terribly wrong.)

Justice at Stake logoWe cannot get into the Oklahoma justices’ heads. Perhaps they dissolved their own stay to avoid a continued head-to-head with the governor. Or perhaps they feared the impeachment resolution. But whatever their thinking, the ultimate decision did more harm to the independent judiciary than almost anything else, as it merely encouraged the further bullying of courts.

Justice McGregor and her co-author are board members of Justice at Stake, “a nonpartisan network working to keep courts fair and impartial.” You really should read their op-ed all the way to the end. Start here.

Reading the well-drafted opinion piece, I was reminded of an editor’s column I wrote back in 2009. In it, I commended to the consideration of the new U.S. President a jurist worthy of the United States Supreme Court. To my knowledge, President Obama never followed up and contacted Ruth McGregor (and he has not contacted me). But I thought you might enjoy what may be the one and only Arizona Attorney column that was also an open letter to the POTUS.

My SCOTUS recommendation opened Dear President Obama.” Keep reading here.

In the meantime, the retired justices suggest, if we needed more evidence of the real-life fallout that may come from the politicization of courts, an Oklahoma lethal injection provides it.

Below is an image of my 2009 column.

AzAt Editor's Letter May 2009 Ruth McGregor_opt

(click to biggify)

Proposition 115 is on the November ballot in Arizona, and its passage would lead to changes in the way we select certain judges (appellate court judges and superior court judges in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties).

This past month, State Bar CEO John Phelps co-wrote an article in Arizona Attorney that described the history of merit selection. The authors also explored what would change under the new law.

As John pointed out, there is a wide variety of opinion among the state’s lawyers and judges over the wisdom of passing Prop 115. The State Bar is supporting its passage and has written a ballot-pamphlet statement on its behalf.

(To read the text of the Proposition as well as all of the “For” and “Against” statements, go here.)

An event tomorrow night may allow you to hear both sides state their cases. The Maricopa County Bar Association (which wrote an “Against” statement in the voter pamphlet) is hosting a forum on the topic. It will be held at their offices at 303 E. Palm Lane in Phoenix, from 4:30 to 5:30.

More information on the event is here.

As the MCBA describes it:

“All sides of the issue will be debated by a distinguished panel moderated by Michael Grant of Gallagher & Kennedy.”

“The panelists are Hon. Ruth V. McGregor, retired chief justice, Arizona Supreme Court; Mark I. Harrison, Osborn Maledon; Peter Gentala, counsel to the majority, Arizona House of Representatives; and Joseph A. Kanefield, immediate past president of the State Bar of Arizona of Ballard Spahr.”

Admission is free, but they’ve asked people to register their attendance with bboehlke@maricopabar.org.

I may see you there.

Here’s a map to the location:

The State Bar Convention is about a lot more than merit selection of judges—but a dialogue on the topic ranged through numerous sessions.

Prop 115 panel, L to R: Grady Gammage, Jr., Peter Gentala, Hon. Mary Schroeder, Pete Dunn, Hon. Ruth McGregor (ret.)

An unscientific survey (by me in the Biltmore hallways) reveals that too few lawyers are even aware that a ballot proposition is headed our way that would alter the Arizona Constitution in a way that should be of interest to all.

Proposition 115, as it’s been numbered, will be on the November ballot. For some background on merit selection generally, see a page on the State Bar website (the State Bar supports the compromise).

A Wednesday morning seminar at Convention covered the general topic of the relationship between the Legislature and the courts. And as I noted previously, even that session ended up substantially focused on merit selection.

Then, on Wednesday afternoon, a session dedicated to the topic provided a stellar panel. It included Ninth Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder; former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Ruth McGregor (ret.); Pete Dunn of the Arizona Judges Association; Peter Gentala, Counsel to the Majority in the state House of Representatives; and State Bar President Joe Kanefield. The moderator was Grady Gammage Jr. (who has performed this task, on the same subject, before).

A slide on the judicial merit-selection compromise

Judge Mary Schroeder, in short order, explained why we have merit selection, why she opposes Prop 115 and why Arizonans should be proud of their judges. Justice McGregor then did the same.

On the other side of the issue, Peter Gentala and Pete Dunn urged support for Prop 115.

State Bar President Joe Kanefield

Dunn, however, said that even he believes Prop 115 will be defeated “because it’s a very complex proposition and people usually vote no.” But if it goes down, he added, we had better be ready for a legislative backlash. He said he would expect “a total emasculation of merit [selection] in coming sessions.”

Four audience members spoke, largely in opposition to the proposition or simply seeking clarification. Speaking for the State Bar and its support of Prop 115 were Amelia Craig Cramer and Whitney Cunningham.

This past weekend, the State Bar of Arizona carried out its Law Day event, which I mentioned before (and hope to report more on soon).

Law Day, of course, is a nationwide celebration of the rule of law. Communities and entities celebrate it in many ways. That makes tomorrow’s event sponsored by the Maricopa County Bar Association worth your attention.

The MCBA’s event is titled “The Crisis in Court Funding.” That is an endeavor that brings attention to one of the most serious impediments to widespread access to justice.

Among the panelists will be former Arizona Chief Justice Ruth McGregor.

More information, and a registration page, are here.

Former Arizona Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor