Grady Gammage Jr.
The way we pick judges has all the makings of a yawner, right up there with shareholder voting rules and ski-lift instructions. And yet in Arizona and across the country, the topic is red hot.
This year, as in the past, the Arizona Legislature is considering some bills that would alter what many argue is the flagship method for judicial selection in the nation. As Morrison Institute executive director Sue Clark-Johnson said, “Arizona has been considered a model in the United States.”
In response to the possibility of Legislative action, the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University hosted a panel presentation on the topic on Tuesday, Feb. 22. (I previously posted some event photos at the Arizona Attorney Magazine Facebook page.)
Held at the ASU downtown Phoenix campus, the roundtable included:
- State Senator Adam Driggs (R-11), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee
- Hon. Ruth V. McGregor, former Chief Justice, Arizona Supreme Court
- Hon. Mary M. Schroeder, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the ninth Circuit
- Hon. William J. “Bill” O’Neil, former judge, Arizona Superior Court for Pinal County (and now the state’s Presiding Disciplinary Judge; we wrote about him in the January issue of AzAt)
The moderator was lawyer Grady Gammage Jr.
Former Arizona Chief Justice Ruth V. McGregor
The roundtable was great, as far as it went. But events like this come perilously close to the scenario of heartfelt preachers assaulting the ears of the choir: They tend to be slated from a particular point of view, which the audience shares. The only mystery is will there be catering?
Given that, how do you achieve a vibrant evening, one where the assembled learn something new and important about the topic?
Have a great moderator.
Props to all the panelists, but Grady Gammage did his job with elán. He poked, prodded and incited the four panelists. And although he pretty much agreed with them about everything, he spent the evening playing the role not of the agreeable piece of furniture—the death knell for a roundtable—but of the mildly disagreeable event interloper.
Mind you, when I say disagreeable, I heap the greatest of praise. For the moderator who plays devil’s advocate is the audience’s surest friend. His insistence on hard answers from speakers sharpened their presentations and made their positions crystal clear. It made them and their presentation look even better.
The evening opened with remarks by Sue Clark-Johnson and Dr. David R. Berman, an Institute research fellow. Berman gave a historic overview of the state’s merit selection process.
And then Gammage explained the political landscape that faces that process. In the current Legislative session, he said, there are currently 10 House Concurrent Resolutions (HCRs) and one House Resolution (HR) that would alter that process in some way.
- Most of the proposals would add Senate confirmation.
- Two would remove the State Bar of Arizona from the process.
- One would change the length of judges’ terms.
- One would retain Pinal County as a judicial election county (its growing population would otherwise automatically make it a merit-selection county).
- One would require the Commission on Judicial Court Appointments to rank the nominees whose names it forwards to the Governor.
- One would allow the Governor to add names of her choosing.
- One would require Senate reconfirmation of judges.
Chief Justice McGregor was especially concerned about the Senate confirmation idea: “It seems intended to make the process more political, and nothing else.”
Sandra Day O'Connor makes a point at the roundtable discussion.
She continued, “When people say, ‘Judges are nothing but politicians in robes,’ that is wrong, and not the case in Arizona.”
Senator Driggs tried to give some insight into the thinking of his colleagues, especially in regard to the Senate confirmation idea.
“I think some may have visions of C-SPAN in their heads, a big vetting process [like U.S. Senate confirmation]. It’s a little bit of a fantasy, like all of a sudden everyone will be down there and paying attention.”
McGregor added what became a recurring theme of the evening—what exactly is broke that requires fixing?
“Most who have studied the Arizona merit-selection system say that it is the best. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has said [to other states], ‘We don’t take a position, but if you have merit selection, follow Arizona.’”
Gammage got some laughs and raised eyebrows when he asked Judge O’Neil if Pinal County was resisting “becoming a grown-up county” and adopting merit-selection. O’Neil took issue with the question—not the “grown-up” moniker, but with the inference that residents wanted to keep judicial elections. He said that the majority of the county would like to be a merit-selection jurisdiction.
O’Neil added that in preparation for the move to merit-selection, the court there began performing trial-run internal reviews, which would become the norm under the new process. And in a county where the judges have always been elected, he said that “not all did that well.”
Judge Mary Schroeder shared more background about merit selection. She reminded everyone that Judge Thomas Tang, a respected jurist, was thrown out of his elected judgeship because of a single criminal case.
In response, “The business community got merit-selection passed in a referendum.”
She also was troubled by the seeming hostility toward any organized bar association. She recalled a previous battle over splitting the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In testimony to Congress, Microsoft General Counsel Bill Neukom spoke in favor of the current Circuit. Many advised him to “play up” his Microsoft connection, and to downplay the fact that he was the President-Elect of the American Bar Association.
Gammage did not let the group off that easy, though. He urged them to discuss the ballot that contains “all those names” of judges standing for retention election.
“No one knows what to do with all those names. What an insulting process. If we agree that it is meaningless, and that it is not likely to have much impact, what is it for?”
“What is the effect on civic expectations,” he continued, “in what amounts to an essentially meaningless exercise? If the result is that 1 out of 50 gets marginal ratings, why send the names to the ballot at all?
Of course, panelists did not agree with his premise. But they did acknowledge that it creates a challenge for voters.
McGregor, Schroeder and O’Neil agreed that merit-selection’s very existence may serve to persuade those with more meager skills from seeking a judgeship in the first place. And that would mean those seeking to be retained would likely have high ratings
And Senator Driggs also spoke in favor of merit selection.
“I don’t care if someone is charismatic and goes to neighborhood picnics. I want them to know the Rules of Evidence.”
Finally, in the audience Q&A portion, a slight woman raised her hand and patiently waited her turn. When Gammage called on her, Sandra Day O’Connor, former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear.
“I grew up on a ranch, and we followed the motto of, If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, it ain’t broke, and I don’t know what changes they’re going to implement.”