Judicial retention elections: What you should know about the vote on Arizona judges

There are many offices that are up for election in the 2022 elections in Arizona, from Governor to Senate and members of the Arizona State Legislature.

Besides those offices, however, voters will also get to vote on whether a number of state judges will be allowed to remain in office.

Here's what you should know about Arizona's system of judicial retention elections.

So, are we voting for judges, like we do for Congressmen and Senators?

Depending on where you live in Arizona, the answer is different.

According to the Arizona Judicial Branch's website, justices for the Arizona Supreme Court, as well as Court of Appeals judges, and Superior Court judges in Coconino, Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal Counties are appointed by the governor from lists of nominees screened and selected by public committees.

"Once appointed, the judges are retained or rejected by the voters every four years for these four superior courts, and every six years for the appellate courts," read a portion of the website.

On the website of the Arizona Commission of Judicial Performance Review (JPR Commission), elections that decide whether or not a judge can remain in office are called "retention elections."

While all Arizona voters will vote in retention elections for Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges, voters in Apache, Cochise, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Mohave, Navajo, Santa Cruz, Yavapai and Yuma Counties will still elect Superior Court judges for their respective counties.

It should be noted that Coconino County only had its first retention election in 2020, according to the Associated Press. Voters in that county approved a merit selection ballot measure in 2018.

Are judges evaluated for retention purposes?

According to the JPR Commission's website, the state's constitution lists a process for evaluating the performance of a judge that is appointed through merit selection, and the JPR Commission was created to conduct regular reviews of appointed judges.

"Voters evaluate judges through public input collected through surveys conducted by jurors, witnesses, litigants, people who represent themselves in court, attorneys and court staff who have observed the judge at work. This input is then used to rate key aspects of each judge's performance," read a portion of the website. "The public has the key role in the performance review process, as the JPR Commission uses the public input to decide whether each judge subject to retention election "Meets" or "Does Not Meet" judicial performance standards."

How are judges evaluated?

Judges are evaluated in five areas, according to the JPR Commission's website:

  • Legal Ability: their ability to decide cases based on applicable law, and demonstrate competent legal analysis.
  • Integrity: their freedom from personal bias, and administering justice fairly, ethically, and uniformly.
  • Communication Skills: their issuance of prompt, understandable rulings and directions.
  • Judicial Temperament: The judge's ability to be dignified, courteous, and patient.
  • Administrative Performance: Effective management of courtroom and office, and issuance of rulings in a prompt and efficient manner.

Judges are given a "Meets" or "Does Not Meet" judicial performance standards ranking.

"For each category of judicial performance, judges are rated and scored as ‘Superior’ 4 points, ‘Very Good’ 3 points, ‘Satisfactory’ 2 points, ‘Poor’ 1 point, and ‘Unacceptable’ 0 points," read a portion of the website. "First, if a judge or justice has an average score of 2.0 or less for any category from any group of respondents, the judge does not meet the threshold standard. Second, if 25 percent or more of any group of respondents rate the judge or justice as ‘unacceptable’ or ‘poor’ in any category, the threshold standard has not been met."

How does the commission determine if a judge has met performance standards?

On the JPR Commission's website, it states that the commission considers a number of factors when they determine whether or not a judge meets standards. The factors include:

  • Statistical reports of survey results, compared to the Threshold Standard adopted by the Commission
  • Transcribed comments from public hearings
  • Written public comments
  • Written or oral comments to the Commission that are submitted by the judge or justice being reviewed
  • Information gathered from the Commission on Judicial Conduct
  • The assignment of the judge in question

The commission also states that there are measures in place to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of the performance review process.

How do they select members for the commission?

On the JPR Commission's website, it states that the 34 commission members are appointed by the Arizona Supreme Court.

"The Commission can have no more than seven judges and six attorneys, so the majority of the members are public members who are not members of the legal community," a portion of the website reads.

Where can I find the results for those evaluations?

The JPR Commission's website states that their findings, as well as data reports, can be found on voter information pamphlets, as well as on the website.

Have judges been found to not meet performance standards?

According to records on the JPR commission's website, judges have been found to not meet performance standards, but that appears to be rare.

Based on records available on the commission's website, four judges have been found to not meet performance standards, from the 2010 elections to 2022's election:

  • Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Benjamin R. Norris (2014)
  • Pima County Superior Court Judge Catherine M. Woods (2014)
  • Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry (2016)
  • Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Hopkins (2022)

"For any judge or justice who does not meet the standard, or even if the standard is met, by a majority vote, the Commission may ask the Commission Chair to invite the judge to respond in confidence, by letter or in person, regarding questions about scores, public comments, letters, or other performance-related questions," read a portion of the commission's website.

Do judges get tossed out of offices in retention elections?

While judges on the state and county levels have been rejected by voters in elections, it is not a common occurrence.

In 1978, Arizona voters decided not to retain Court of Appeals judge Gary K. Nelson. In that same election, Maricopa County voters decided not to retain Superior Court judge Fred J. Hyder.

In the 2014 election, Maricopa County voters decided not to retain Superior Court judge Benjamin Norris. As noted above, the JPR Commission found Norris did not meet performance standards that year.

It is worth noting that in at least one instance, voters have voted to retain a judge who was convicted of a crime.

According to a 1991 Los Angeles Times article, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Philip Marquardt was retained by voters in the 1988 election, despite being convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana offense that year.

Results from the Arizona Secretary of State's Office show 254,517 people voted to retain Marquardt, compared to 251,246 people who voted not to retain him. The margin for Marquardt's retention was noticeably smaller than that of other judges in that year's retention election.

Marquardt subsequently resigned from the bench, after pleading to felony marijuana-related charges in 1991.

Do people vote in retention elections?

Records show considerably fewer eligible people vote in retention elections when compared to other statewide races.

According to the official results from the 2018 elections, just over 1.65 million voters made a choice to either retain or reject Supreme Court Justice Chad Pelander (he was ultimately retained). In that same election, just over 2.37 million eligible Arizonans voted for a gubernatorial candidate.

Do other states have retention elections?

According to an article published by the University of Denver's Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, 20 states have retention elections for judges.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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