TUCSON, Ariz. (Legal Newsline) -- The Arizona Supreme Court, in a ruling last week, overturned a new law that changes the selection process for judicial candidates in the state.

In its eight-page opinion, the state's high court said the new law "directly conflicts" with the state constitution.

For nearly 40 years, Arizona has used a merit selection process for nominating judicial candidates.

Under the system, a nominating commission provides at least three qualified candidates to the governor for appointment to the state's appellate and superior courts.

Although an attempt to change this system by referendum failed in November, the Arizona Legislature recently approved a bill, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer, requiring the commission to nominate at least five judicial candidates.

Four members of the commission that nominates judges to the state's appellate court asked the Supreme Court to throw out the law.

They contend the Legislature's writing changes the state's constitution, which "may be amended only by a vote of the People."

Vice Chief Justice Scott Bales, who authored the court's opinion, agreed.

"On its face, H.B. 2600 conflicts with our state constitution. Arizona's Constitution provides that the Commission will nominate no fewer than three persons for each judicial vacancy, unless a majority of the Commission votes to nominate additional persons," he explained in the ruling Friday. "H.B. 2600, in contrast, directs the Commission to submit at least five nominees, unless the Commission rejects an applicant by a two-thirds vote.

"This requirement fundamentally changes the selection process set forth in the constitution."

The court didn't buy the State's argument that the law represents a "mere procedural change" to the nomination process.

"It works a fundamental change in the constitutionally prescribed balance of power between the Commission and the governor," Bales wrote.

"By increasing the number of nominees the Commission must submit, H.B. 2600 simultaneously increases the governor's discretion and narrows the commissioners' constitutionally granted discretion to nominate no more than the three candidates whom they determine best meet the constitutionally mandated selection criteria. Further, H.B. 2600 imposes a two-thirds voting requirement in a context not authorized by the constitution."

Justice at Stake, one of the groups that filed an amicus brief in the case last month, applauded the court's ruling.

"The Arizona Supreme Court has awarded defenders of fair and impartial courts a decisive victory. It rejected an attempt by legislators to throw open the courtroom doors to greater political influence on the judiciary," JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement Friday.

"Arizona's existing merit selection system has helped insulate judges from politics for decades, and today's ruling means this system remains firmly intact."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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