Judicial rating proposal rapped

MESA (AP) ­ A proposal to add a new judicial rating to the ballot is drawing opposition from more than 60 state court judges in Maricopa County who say it would "seriously threaten" judicial independence.

Trial judges in Maricopa and Pima counties are chosen by the governor. Voters there decide every four years whether to keep those judges on the bench.

But the only information voters are given on the ballot simply states whether each judge "meets" or "does not meet" performance standards.

Now, a group of nine judges, lawyers and laymen who are on the Commission on Judicial Performance Review ­ the panel that evaluates judges ­ wants to add a new rating: "Exceeds" standards.

But judges opposing the additional rating say the seemingly minor change would needlessly damage their morale and allow the commission "to make arbitrary decisions based on questionable data," according to a draft document obtained by the East Valley Tribune.

"I don't think this really adds anything other than a potentially arbitrary category," said Judge Mark Armstrong, who is leading the opposition.

The retention process begins with lawyers and litigants filling out surveys on the performance of judges.

The Commission on Judicial Performance Review uses the surveys, written comments and public comments on the judges ­ about 45 trial judges in Maricopa County and 13 more appellate and Supreme Court justices per election ­ to decide if they meet or fail to meet the performance standards.

All of that information is then placed in the voter pamphlet, which in last year's general election took 32 pages.

"That's a pretty big chore for people to digest," said former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Jones, who is leading a group delegated to find out if the current system for informing the public is working.

Judge Daniel Barker, speaking for the commission members making the proposed change, claims in written documents that "almost a third of all voters in elections after 1976 have not completed the judicial retention portion of the ballot."

Jones said one of the frustrations of lawmakers is that no judge gets voted off the bench in the current system. Only two judges since 1974, the year the governor began choosing judges, have not been retained by voters.