Arizona shows the way: merit selection of judges.
As retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor affirmed, "Selection of judges according to the candidates' merit is, naturally, key to ensuring that a judge will act impartially. Considerations other than merit motivating a political actor to appoint a judge (or voters to elect a judge) are likely to be the very considerations that will prevent a judge from deciding cases fairly and without bias."
Arizonans believe that our merit selection system, adopted in 1974 by the electorate, should serve as a nationwide model. The League of Women Voters of Arizona (LWVAZ) played a significant role in developing this system and in amending it, in 1992, to include a review process for evaluating judicial performance and allowing voters to decide on retention.
Here's how the merit selection of judges works today in Arizona. The governor appoints and the senate confirms a nonpartisan commission of citizens, legal professionals and civic leaders. This panel evaluates and recommends a list of potential judges to the governor who must select a nominee from that list.
Because Arizona holds retention elections (other merit selection systems might use other means for determining retention), we have instituted a unique constitutionally mandated program. Judges up for retention must meet with a judicial performance review commission (appointed similarly to the nonpartisan selection commission) to evaluate their performance. This performance review encourages judicial self-evaluation and improvement. Every two years, the review information gathered by this commission is sent to all households with a registered voter. The voters then decide whether to retain the judges for another term.
Three recent cases before the Arizona Supreme Court testify to the success of this system in keeping our courts impartial and nonpolitical. In the second half of 2006, the Republican controlled legislature and the Republican Party went to the Supreme Court for rulings. Basing its decision strictly on legal issues, the five-member Court, with three members from the Democratic Party, ruled against the Democratic Governor and unanimously upheld the Republican positions. Our highest court has shown repeatedly that it is not influenced by politics.
When judges achieve office through a fair system of merit selection, the best candidates can place themselves in contention without concerns about raising money for a political campaign. The qualities essential for judicial excellence are rarely the same as those needed to successfully campaign for political office.
We urge state and local Leagues throughout the country to work in coalitions to help bring about needed reforms for their localities with respect to how judges attain office. Also, Leagues in states that have strong merit selection systems must be vigilant and work to protect those systems. The LWVAZ has learned that special interests do not tend to support truly impartial courts.
As Senator John McCain (AZR) noted, "If we can't keep special interests out of courts, where is the public interest safe?"
BY LOIS BRECHNER
Director of Impartial Courts Portfolio, League of Women Voters of Arizona
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|Title Annotation:||SOUNDING OFF|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2007|
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