Former Ariz. chief justice lauds merit selection process

John O'Brien Oct. 28, 2009, 1:55pm


WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - The State of Arizona's process for selecting its judges was hailed as the nation's finest by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform Wednesday at its summit, and former Chief Justice Ruth McGregor agreed.

Arizona largely uses the Missouri Plan, a method used by 12 states to appoint their judges, who are then subject to retention elections. More than 80 percent of the judges in the state are selected this way.

McGregor, who resigned this year after 11 years on the state Supreme Court, said several elements help a merit selection system succeed. Merit selection is used to pick judges on the Supreme Court, two appellate courts and trial courts in and around Phoenix and Tucson.

"(It must) do all it can to assure appointment of qualified persons and only qualified persons," she said. "It must be designed to assure the public that judges will be held accountable to act fair and impartial."

She added that retention elections must be held so the public has a chance to remove judges not meeting the proper standards, and that transparency in the application and appointment process is also key.

Judicial selection commissions hold two public meetings before a list of at least three candidates is sent to the governor. All applications are posted on the court's Web site --

The transparency in the application process had the chance to spook some into not applying, McGregor said, but that hasn't happened. Besides, if someone is that worried about his or her application being viewed then not becoming a judge is "probably a good thing," she added.

Bipartisan elections have created problems in at least one state. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered West Virginia Chief Justice Brent Benjamin to step down from the $50 million case of a campaign supporter.

Benjamin had refused to grant calls for his recusal after Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent millions of dollars in support of his 2004 campaign. Blankenship twice voted in the majority that overturned the $50 million verdict in favor of Harman Mining Co., but the case will again be decided.

McGregor clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who started her judicial career in Arizona.

O'Connor has cited the Caperton case in suggesting West Virginia change its selection process.

"It just doesn't look good," O'Connor was quoted as saying in a May speech. "West Virginia cannot possibly benefit from having that much money injected into cases."

McGregor said any state can pull it off.

"There's no reason to think the citizens of other states are less likely to carry out their roles," she said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at Legal Newsline is owned by the ILR.

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