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Census numbers bring change for Pinal Superior Court judges

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Census numbers bring change for Pinal Superior Court judges

Voters to decide to retain judges, vacancies will be filled by appointments

  • Judge Roger Carter Olson stands in a Pinal County courtroom. He is the presiding judge for Pinal Superior Court and he will face retention – instead of election – in 2012 should he decide to stay in his position.
    Whitney Phillips/Cronkite News ServiceJudge Roger Carter Olson stands in a Pinal County courtroom. He is the presiding judge for Pinal Superior Court and he will face retention – instead of election – in 2012 should he decide to stay in his position.
  • Brittny Goodsell/Cronkite News Service

FLORENCE — When he ran unopposed for election to the Pinal County Superior Court in 2008, Judge Robert Carter Olson gathered more than 1,800 petition signatures and mingled in the community.

“Most of the campaign activity was along the lines of being in parades and being in picnics and town parties, sort of the old-time retail politics of just shaking hands and kissing babies,” said Olson, now presiding judge of that court.

Olson didn’t have an opponent, so he didn’t have to raise campaign funds or participate in debates like some judicial candidates did.

But if Olson decides in 2012 that he wants to keep his position, he’ll face an entirely different process.

Thanks to Pinal County’s jump in population over the last decade, voters will decide whether to retain sitting judges rather than directly electing them. Any vacancies on the bench will be filled through appointment, not election.

“Our judges are going to continue to seek those opportunities to intersect with the community while not having to do the things that are distasteful, like raising the money or some of the knock-down, drag-out politics that judges shouldn’t have to do,” Olson said.

The Arizona Constitution requires that counties with populations of at least 250,000 go through an appointment process to fill vacancies on the Superior Court bench. Then, every four years, voters decide whether or not those judges should keep their positions.

The 2010 Census shows that Pinal County’s population increased to more than 375,000 over the last decade, so it will join Maricopa and Pima counties in the merit selection system.

“We are the first county that is graduating into the merit system,” Olson said. “It’s creating some interesting questions.”

The main question: Pinal currently has three county supervisors, but the state constitution requires five to participate in the merit system’s appointment process. The county also passed the population threshold – at least 175,000 people – that requires five county supervisors.

The constitution calls for five supervisors to appoint committees from each of their districts to recommend those who will serve on a county–wide commission that recommends judicial candidates to the governor.

Olson said the two new supervisor seats won’t have been filled when the system goes into effect, so the county will seek advice from state officials on how to proceed for 2012.

Merit selection requires that a commission on trial court appointments, headed by the chief justice and made up of five attorneys and the two citizens from each supervisor’s district, analyze judicial candidates and recommend at least three to the governor for appointment.

Roger Hartley, director of Western Carolina University’s master’s degree program in public affairs, served several times on that commission for Pima County and said the process of recommending potential appointees to the governor is transparent.

“It’s not private,” he said. “It’s not smoke–filled back rooms, as people sometimes portray it.”

Under the merit system, the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review will provide an analysis of each Pinal County Superior Court judge and a recommendation of whether he or she should stay. Annette Corallo, the commission’s program coordinator, said the merit system guarantees that voters have information on judges, whereas that wasn’t always the case when judges ran unopposed in elections.

“In that sense, the voters will have more information under merit selection because at least they have the performance reports on the judges who are on their ballots,” she said.

State Rep. Frank Pratt, R–Casa Grande, said while he’ll miss the judges stepping out into the communities to campaign, he thinks the merit system will suit the growing county.

“As we get a larger number of judges, it’s going to make it even more difficult for them to get out and campaign and meet with the people,” he said.

Olson said Pinal County voters are still familiar with their judges, so they’ll likely be more involved in the retention process than voters in the two larger counties.

“Some of these direct powers are much more powerful in smaller districts,” he said.

The idea behind the merit system is to distance judges from politics and fundraising that may jeopardize their perceived impartiality, Olson said.

“The end game here is to have a quality judiciary who is independent in making decisions yet is accountable to the public in a meaningful way,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously listed the first name of Roger Hartley, director of Western Carolina University’s master’s degree program in public affairs.

How merit selection works

  • Each of a county’s five supervisors selects a committee of seven non-attorney citizens to review and pass on applications for the county-wide commission that reviews judicial candidates.
  • From that list, the governor chooses two non-attorney citizens from each supervisor’s district, 10 in all, to serve on the commission, and the Senate must approve them.
  • The board of governors of the state bar selects five attorneys to serve with the 10 citizens on the commission.
  • Headed by the chief justice, the commission reviews applications and recommends at least three judicial candidates to the governor to make a final choice.
  • Once appointed, a judge goes on the ballot after his or her first two years and every four years thereafter.

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