Q&AZ: There are dozens of Arizona judges on my ballot. How do I know who to vote for?

By Scott Bourque, Hunter Brownstein, Lindsey C. Riley
Published: Friday, October 9, 2020 - 4:49pm
Updated: Monday, October 17, 2022 - 9:55pm

Arizona Supreme Court building
Lauren Loftus/KJZZ
Arizona Supreme Court building.

On Maricopa, Coconino, Pima and Pinal County ballots this year, voters will have to choose whether justices on the state Supreme Court, judges on the Arizona Court of Appeals, and judges of the Superior Court get to keep their jobs. 

In these retention elections, the judges run unopposed: voters decide whether the judge should keep their seat but don't choose between multiple candidates. 

A KJZZ listener wanted to know how to make sense of all the judges listed on her mail-in ballot and decide which judges she wanted to vote to retain. 

In Arizona’s 11 smaller counties, judges are directly elected by voters. 

“When you’re in a smaller county, it’s more likely that you’re familiar with that judge. You maybe knew them when they were a practicing attorney, and you maybe have some direct experience or knowledge of that person and their work,” said Aaron Nash, a spokesperson for the Arizona Judicial Branch. 

In counties with more than 250,000 people, and in Coconino County, judges are selected by a nonpartisan commission, which provides the governor a list of eligible candidates for each open judgeship. The governor appoints a judge to fill that seat, who then has to face voters every four years.

“When you get to a large population, you just don’t have that same kind of direct experience with your judges,” Nash said. “That’s where the commission comes in and says, ‘What’s most important to being a judge?’ and then establishes these votes on whether they meet those standards or not.”

Much like ballot initiatives, voters make a “yes” or “no” choice for each judge. A “yes” vote means the voter wants the judge to remain on the court. A “no” vote means the voter wants the judge removed. 

Statewide, all voters will see the same three Supreme Court justices: James P. Beene, Bill Montgomery and Ann Timmer.

Depending on where a voter lives, they may see three or six judges on the Arizona Court of Appeals that are up for retention. In Maricopa, Pinal, Pima, and Coconino Counties, dozens of Superior Court judges are up for retention, as well. 

Maricopa County Clerk of Superior Court
Maricopa County Superior Court South Court Tower in downtown Phoenix.

Every justice and judge that is up for a retention election is independently rated by a state committee called the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review. 

Each election year, the Commission releases the Judicial Performance Reports, which compile statistics on each judge up for retention. 

“[The] commission does surveys of people who are in court in front of those judges, so witnesses, lawyers, parties,” Nash said. “They compile those survey results against a standard criteria, and then that commission issues a decision on whether the judge meets or does not meet those standards.”

The 33 members of the Commission then each vote on whether or not the judge meets judicial performance standards. 

Almost all of the Maricopa County Superior Court judges received unanimous support from the commission. Criminal Judge Stephen M. Hopkins was the lowest-ranked judge in Maricopa County, with 32% of commissioners agreeing that he met judicial performance standards.

All Arizona Supreme Court justices and Appeals Court judges received unanimous support from the commission. 

The Judicial Performance Reports are nonpartisan and focus solely on a judge’s job performance. For voters who might want to retain or reject judges based on their stances on key issues, advocacy groups often endorse judges or provide judges with surveys on issues the organization represents.

Organizations like Equality Arizona, which advocates for the LGBTQ community, provide a list of judges that they recommend voters reject. They base their recommendations based on the Judicial Performance Reports, as well as that judge’s previous rulings.

“We want to make sure that justices and judges are there to serve the public, and there to do their job of interpreting law to ensure that every Arizonan has access to the civil and human rights we all deserve,” Equality Arizona’s Executive Director Michael Soto said. 

Other organizations like the Center for Arizona Policy, which advocates for socially conservative legislation, send out a survey to judges. Arizona Supreme Court Justices James BeeneWilliam Montgomery and Ann Timmer responded to the survey. Only two judges up for retention on the Maricopa County Superior Court — Michael J. Herrod and Julie Mata — responded.

Coconino County only has three judges up for retention, while Pinal County has six and Pima County has 12. Maricopa County has a whopping 47 judges that voters need to consider. 

“It’s important to finish the ballot. It can be a daunting list to see those names, but information is out there,” Nash said. “People have done the surveys, they’ve done the work to see if these judges meet the standards or not. Instead of just skipping it or guessing, it helps to be an informed voter.”

With the vast majority of Arizonans expected to vote by mail this year, voters have the unique opportunity to spend a lot of time with their ballots, carefully considering each choice. 

“Voting from home is such a great opportunity to research both up and down the ballot,” Soto said. “It’s important that we’re voting up and down the ballot, and as citizens, we’re voting for every office that we can, and because we’re voting from home, you have the opportunity to do the research that ensures every vote that you cast is one you feel reflects the Arizona that you want to see.”

Do voters have to decide on all the judges?

Another KJZZ listener asked if he had to complete the section about whether several Superior Court judges should be retained in order to have his ballot counted. 

If a voter decides not to vote on races, like the Arizona Corporation Commission or retaining a Superior Court judge, for example, that contest is not counted. The only contests that do count are those that are properly filled out.

Diana Solorio, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, explained what a voter should do if they overvoted.

“Make sure if you over vote and you want to make sure that that contest is counted, you can request a replacement ballot," said Solorio.

Maricopa County voters can request a replacement ballot by calling 602-506-1511.

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