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Voters reject Prop 115 on judicial selection

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PHOENIX – Voters rejected Proposition 115 Tuesday, upholding the current system of selecting and retaining state judges in Pima and Maricopa counties as well as appellate and Supreme Court judges.

Unofficial returns showed the measure trailing by a wide margin.

The current merit selection system, applying to county Superior Courts with at least 250,000 residents as well as the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, uses nonpartisan commissions made up of five lawyers nominated by the State Bar of Arizona and 10 lay people.

The commissions recruit and review candidates and forward the governor a slate of nominees consisting of at least three nominees and representing more than one political party.

In Arizona's two largest counties, Pima and Maricopa, Proposition 115 would have increased the number of nominees from merit selection to at least eight and removed the requirement that more than one political party be represented.

In other counties, Superior Court judges are elected.

Rather than nominating lawyers for commissions, the State Bar would have appointed one and the governor would have appointed the other four without the State Bar’s input.

The ballot measure resulted from a compromise over original legislation that would have eliminated merit selection altogether. The State Bar of Arizona, which objected to the original proposal, ended up supporting Proposition 115, as did the the Arizona Judges Association and Arizona Judicial Council.

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Proponents argued that removing constraints on numbers and parties as well as granting the governor more say over nominating commissions would produce better judges.

State Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, a practicing attorney, said he was disappointed by the results, but he doesn’t believe it’s a dead issue.

"People are frustrated with the current process," he said. "But, unfortunately, it was a little too complex for the average voter to grasp."

Pierce said he sees the failure of the proposition as an opportunity to draft new legislation that would make the judicial selection process more transparent and help voters understand how judges are selected and retained.

Opponents of Proposition 115, including 19 past State Bar presidents and five retired Arizona Supreme Court justices, argued that the current system for judicial selection is one of the best in the country.

Mark Harrison, former State Bar president and a leader of the group “No on Prop. 115-Save Merit Selection of Judges,” said he is relieved the measure failed but he worries there are still people who seek to politicize the judicial selection process rather than focusing on the merits of candidates.

"We haven't seen the last of this issue," he said. “But I'm sure glad we won this battle."

The Maricopa County Bar Association, Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association, Arizona Association of Defense Counsel and Arizona Association for Justice/Arizona Trial Lawyers Association also registered their opposition to the measure.

In addition to changing judicial selection and retention, Proposition 115 would have required that orders and opinions by state judges and justices be published online. It would have changed the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75 and extended the time before they face retention votes from four to eight years for Superior Court judges and six to eight years for appellate and Supreme Court justices.

Under the measure, a joint legislative committee would have held hearings to gather testimony on the performance of judges and justices who faced retention votes.

“No on Prop. 115-Save Merit Selection of Judges” had raised $145,233 as of Oct. 25, with almost all of that money coming from lawyers and law firms.

The group “Making Merit Selection Stronger, Yes on Prop. 115” had raised $400 as of Oct. 25.

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