State Supreme Court rejects suit to change how Arizona retains Appeals Court judges

By Greg Hahne
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Thursday, September 7, 2023 - 4:00pm

The state Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit from the Goldwater Institute over how Arizona Court of Appeals judges are retained. 

The Institute, which lobbies against government regulation, claims that only certain counties get to vote on retaining certain appellate judges. 

The group says that goes against the constitution and wants the process voided by the 2024 election.

"It comes down to a really simple principle: Every Arizonan should have the right to vote on judges that affect them," said attorney Jonathan Riches. "And the current system doesn't allow that."

The court told the Goldwater Institute to refile the lawsuit to include anyone who might have claims to relief. 

Justice Ann Scott Timmer did not say, however, who would need to be jointed in the lawsuit to have it heard. And there was no immediate response from Riches.

Retain-reject election

Strictly speaking, Arizona does not elect appellate judges.

Under a system approved by voters in 1974, they are chosen by the governor who has to select from a list submitted by a screening panel.

But that still requires sitting judges to stand for reelection on a retain-reject basis every four years. If turned out of office by voters, the selection process starts over.

At the heart of the issue is that governors are required to select appellate judges based on county of residence. Riches said the Goldwater Institute is not challenging that, saying it promotes diversity.

What is a problem, he said, is the law says the list of who can vote to retain or reject them is based on the residence of the voter.

"Voters cannot vote on the retention of judges who reside outside their geographic area,'' the lawsuit says.

Similar bill vetoed 

This isn't the first bid to nullify the system.

On a party-line vote earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Legislature approve a proposal by House Speaker Ben Toma to require all Court of Appeals judges to stand for retention on a statewide basis. No one testified against it.

But Gov. Katie Hobbs vetoed the proposal by the Peoria Republican, saying the proposed cure of HB 2757 — and, by extension, what the Goldwater Institute is seeking to do through the lawsuit — is worse than the current situation.

"Allowing voters statewide to vote on whether to retain all of Court of Appeals judges regardless of the judge's division assignment, while retaining the division structure, would unfairly dilute the votes of those Arizonans most directly impacted by each division's judges,'' she wrote.

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