Posts Tagged ‘judicial retention elections’

https://lawmrh.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/politicians-34.jpgOn Sunday, the local paper ran an editorial long on conceit but short on illumination. “Kick these judges off the bench” proclaimed the Arizona Republic’s Editorial Board. The Op-ed was a day ahead of its own news story declaring, “Arizona commission deems 2 judges unfit for bench.”

I reckon the paper’s commentators couldn’t wait to join the “Amen” choir hallelujahing two non-retention recommendations by Arizona’s Commission on Judicial Performance Review (JPR).

child silly faceAccording to its website, “The JPR Commission is responsible for developing performance standards and thresholds, and conducting performance reviews of justices and judges who are merit selected and subject to retention elections.”

So with early voting in full swing, the Commission’s judicial evaluations are supposed to help voters wade through a morass of some 50+ judicial unknowns on their ballots.

But what made news was that the Commission actually found two judges worthy of non-retention recommendations. They were Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Benjamin Norris and Pima County Superior Court Judge Catherine Woods — both deemed well below the Judicial Performance Review Standards used to evaluate judges.

Sure the newspaper editorial quoted the Commission’s Chairperson who called the two non-retention votes “historic.” But too bad the paper didn’t adequately explain how truly historic — as in rarer than a Phoenix snowball.

“Everyone’s special . . . .”

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/88/A_Rubber_stamp_stand.JPG/640px-A_Rubber_stamp_stand.JPGFor all its self-congratulated value during its 22 year existence, the JPR Commission has generally functioned as an election cycle rubber-stamp consistently grading judges with mean evaluation scores well above 98%. Everybody’s not just special — but really special.

And since like most of Arizona’s legal establishment, the Commission’s hardly a paragon of transparency1, it’s tough to nail down precisely how rarefied these two non-retention recommendations were. Depending on the source, it’s either been once or twice before that Commission members have found pluck enough to recommend a judicial non-retention. According to one source, it’s happened only once before — in 1998. Yet another source claims it also happened in 2008.

No matter, though, as in each case the public didn’t pay any mind. Regardless of the recommendations, voters retained the judges anyway!

Since Arizona merely requires “a majority of those voting” to retain a judge, newspaper Op-ed and Commission votes notwithstanding — I won’t be surprised if it happens again this year. So much for achieving its intended purpose with all the efficacy of a hamster on a broken wheel.

Nothing succeeds like self-congratulation.

Entertainment 606In September, in a laudatory Op-ed to commemorate this year’s 40th anniversary of Arizona’s judicial merit selection system, Arizona’s State Supreme Court Chief Justice self-interestedly explained “Why Arizona has some of America’s best judges.”

While passing praise all around, at least Chief Justice Bales parenthetically conceded that “Some have observed that Arizona’s voters do not often reject judges who are up for retention.” Talk about understatement.

In 40 years, the scorecard is 99% get retained. Since 1974, only two judges have lost a retention election in Maricopa County. Also see research cited at “Job security means working for the feds or sitting for judicial retention elections”

Additionally, a law review article recently noted that “A few have argued that the JPR program does not work to “weed out” bad judges, because the Commission rarely votes that a judge “Does Not Meet” standards, and when the Commission does issue such a vote, the voters nonetheless retain the judge.

“Although that is one way to evaluate the data,” the authors explained, “an alternative assessment is that the data demonstrate the merit-selection system’s success in appointing high-quality judicial applicants. That is, the data may instead show that the merit-selection system is attracting and retaining highly competent judges who are performing well and do not deserve “does not meet standards” votes or to be voted out of office.”2

Frankly, this “alternative assessment” is probably a stretch. The problem with drawing such conclusions is best summed up by the aphorism, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  Or in other words, we’re expected to accept the fallacious logic that X is true because there’s no proof X is false.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Stick_figure_-_choosing.jpgThat the Commission almost always fails to muster “Does Not Meet” standards votes — or that it rarely votes to non-retain — or that an overwhelmed electorate has to play Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” on scores of judicial unknowns — hardly amounts to proof positive that merit selection cornered the market on the high performing and highly competent.

What it does mean, however, is that after 40 years, merit selection is tantamount to lifetime appointment.


(1) Try searching for meeting minutes or judicial performance report data older than 4 years on the Commission’s website at http://www.azcourts.gov/jpr/NewsandMeetings.aspx?nt=4

(2) See Judicial Performance Review in Arizona: A Critical Assessment.
Berch, Rebecca White; Bass, Erin Norris // Arizona Law Review; 2014, Vol. 56 Issue 2, p353

Photo Credits: Rubber Stamp Stand, by Thamizhpparithi Maari at Wikimedia Commons;Robo Dwarf Hamster, by Sarah , Flickr Creative Commons Attribution; Stick figure – choosing, by Obsidian Soul by at Wikimedia Commons.



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(Dan Pero’s timely, well-written Op-ed dismantles the specious argument for the supposed magic cure of judicial merit selection. When it comes to judicial selection methods, there’s no such thing as perfection. Reblogged with express permission)

Are Appointed Judges Really More Virtuous?

By Dan Pero

Blogger at American Courthouse and President of the American Justice Partnership, which promotes legal reform at the state level.

Hand claspThe conviction of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on public corruption charges has unleashed a torrent of hand-wringing about the need to end democratic judicial elections.  Four former PA governors have now come out in support of a bill to adopt “merit” selection, where the governor would appoint a judge from a slate of nominees hand picked by a commission stacked with elite lawyers.

It would be nice to think that ending elections would magically make our public servants more virtuous, but there doesn’t appear to be any real evidence to support this case.

In Florida a few years back, Judge Thomas E. Stringer, Sr. resigned from office after it was discovered he was helping a stripper hide over $315,000 in assets from her creditors. Stringer later pled guilty to bank fraud.

Poster2Also in Florida, in 2011 District Court Judge Paul Hawkes – known as the “Taj Mahal judge” – resigned from office amid questions about the construction of a $50 million marble and mahogany-laden new courthouse he helped oversee. According to news reports, Hawkes was accused of destroying public records related to the court’s budget and pushing furniture vendors to pay for a trip for Hawkes and two relatives.

Even federal judges, who undergo intense scrutiny in appointment, including a rigorous review process by the American Bar Association, are not immune to scandal.

Judge Thomas Porteous of the Eastern District of Louisiana was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and convicted by the U.S. Senate following evidence he had taken bribes from local attorneys and businessmen with cases before his court and later lied about his actions to the FBI.

File:Strip Club Signage.jpgThen there’s Judge Edward Nottingham of the U.S. District Court of Colorado, who reportedly ran up a $3,000 bar tab at a strip club, used his government-issue phone to make “dates” with call girls, and spent hours cruising porn sites on courthouse computers. One self-described prostitute claimed Nottingham coached her to “lie to federal investigators” about their relationship.

Each of these judges was appointed, rather than elected, some under the so-called merit selection system Marks and other anti-election proponents support for Pennsylvania.  Marks says this new system is needed because judges seeking election often receive campaign contributions from lawyers and special interest groups who may appear in the courtroom.

Yet if the problem is too much influence by lawyers, it’s hard to see how merit selection will solve it.


Merit selection proposals in Pennsylvania call for the creation of a 15-member Appellate Nominating Commission, with seven “public” members and four each appointed by the Governor and the General Assembly.  The experience in other states suggests these nominating commissions quickly become dominated by legal special interest groups.

A few years back in Missouri, the birthplace of merit” selection, the former President of the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers was nominated to fill a vacancy on the state Supreme Court – a nomination made possible by a merit selection commission that included both a former and current board member of the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers, plus the wife of one of the state’s most prominent trial lawyers. As a Wall Street Journal editorial put it, rather than producing judges based on merit, Missouri’s selection process has “handed disproportionate power to trial lawyers and state bar associations,” resulting in a system that “elevates nominating commission cronies.”


It’s hard to see how a merit selection commission dominated by lawyers meeting in the proverbial smoke-filled room addresses the problem of too much potential special interest influence.

The point here is that every system for selecting judges – democratic elections, appointment systems, merit selection – will produce both good and bad judges.  Public corruption will be around as long as there are public servants.  The key is to keep the judicial selection process open, transparent and accountable.  Merit selection accomplishes none of these goals.


Posted at American Courthouse, the personal blog of Dan Pero, March 18, 2013. Reblogged and reposted with express written permission of Dan Pero, April 15, 2013.

Content was also posted April 8, 2013 at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly.com, Meritpicks have flaws too.’


Photo Credit: Signage on the exterior of a strip club in Los Angeles, California, USA., at Wikipedia Commons via Flickr, author Rick Hall,
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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photoA happy coincidence — the same week that a few judges were acting like themselves, my article on judicial retention in the annual issue of the State Constitutional Commentary” entitled “Constitutionally Speaking, Does Retention Matter?” became available in print and online at http://www.albanylawreview.org/article_list.php?volume=75&issue=4

My irreverent contribution to the Albany Law Review, however, was merely an extended riff on what I’ve blogged about before as I critiqued among other things, the smug triumphalism of judicial retention elections and the below-the-radar judicial job security known as “lifetime tenure-light.”

‘Cracking’ wise.

So as I note in my article how the ideal of judicial independence remains preferentially ascendant with the legal establishment, it’s a good thing that every once in a while — the other equally important but oft-subordinated virtue — judicial accountability — finds a momentary albeit informal expression in the hoi polloi’s public eye.

First among the week’s judicial smackdowns was that involving Northern California U.S. District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh who is unquestionably familiar with the Code of Conduct for United States Judges and how it’s probably not O.K. to verbally ball-peen counsel for one of the litigants with the following caustic slapdown“I mean, come on. Seventy-five pages! Seventy-five pages! You want me to do an order on 75 pages, (and) unless you’re smoking crack, you know these witnesses aren’t going to be called when you have less than four hours.”

But then it does seem that, of late, that a certain part of the Code is sometimes overlooked — the section that urges judges to “be patient, dignified, respectful, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.”

photoYet doubtless, for every trial lawyer frustrated by the antics of opposing counsel, Judge Koh’s reproach was savored with approval. There was blogger Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns & Money who sardonically asked “You mean this morning, or generally?” and insinuated atta-girl approval writing “When judges stop being polite and start getting real.” For the record, the Apple lawyer at the receiving end of the judicial outburst denied he was smoking crack.

Lexington-Concord? Civil War?

Not to be outdone — at least at the state level, there were a couple of jurists who also gained national notoriety last week for their own intemperate utterances. One was County Judge Tom Head from Lubbock, Texas who told Fox 34 News that ‘Obama’s Re-election Could Prompt a UN Takeover, Civil War.’

More specifically, the good judge said that if reelected, President Obama was “going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N. Okay, what’s going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking worst case scenario here. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. We’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington-Concord take up arms and get rid of the guy.” Now there’s a jurist willing to go that extra injudicious mile farther than Montana U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Cebull when it comes to demeaning the current occupant of the Oval Office.

And then there was that other judge, coincidentally also from Texas, Brazos County Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Michael McCleary. Judge McCleary got into his own hot water for his angry remarks made to the local press about Thomas Caffall III and his family. Caffall was involved in a deadly shootout near Texas A&M campus that left 3 dead and 4 injured. He died Aug. 13 after being shot several times by authorities responding to the shooting.

With respect to the post-autopsy remains, Judge McCleary said, “I’m not going to let the county be out the expense of going and picking up his nasty-ass body. If it cost us $200 to go pick him up, I’m not going to pay for it. The family can take care of that. I have no sympathy for him or the family.”

Later, thinking better of it and to his credit, the Justice of Peace took out a newspaper ad to apologize for his harsh words.

Yet elsewhere, I have no doubt the beat will go on.


Photo Credits: “Snap Suplex,” by Hugo Fernandes, at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution; “Stirling Fair 2010_3037,” by Robert Taylor, Bobolink, at Flickr via Creative Commons-licensed content requiring attribution.

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Businessmen uid 1Job security? A while back, CBS MoneyWatch.com posted its “Ultimate Job Security Guide”, which said, “Unless you’re a professor with tenure or your boss is named “Dad,” you know that true employment security is all but dead. No longer does working hard and doing well at your job guarantee even a modicum of confidence about the future; the Great Recession took care of that quaint notion. Get used to the idea that you could lose your job at any time, for any reason.”

While this may be true for private sector employment, it’s not the case even in the middle of “the Great Recession,” if you’re a federal government employee or a merit-selected state judge in a jurisdiction where tenure is almost always assured through a “yes/no” judicial retention election.


According to G. Alan Tarr in The Missouri Law Review, “Do Retention Elections Work?,” “from the inception of the Missouri Plan the vast majority of judges seeking retention have kept their seats.” The words “vast majority,” however, grossly understate what’s essentially lifetime employment for judges up for retention elections.

The so-called “Missouri Plan,” which originated there, is a way of selecting state judges that combines appointment and election. It was subsequently adopted along similar lines by 33 other states.

When there is a judicial vacancy, a list of candidates to fill the vacancy is selected by a nominating commission. The commission then submits its recommendations to the governor who chooses from the list. After an initial term, the judge runs unopposed for popular election for a regular term.

By calling merit selection/retention election “lifetimetenurelight, I’ve compared it to the federal judiciary where Article III judges are appointed for life. Indeed, in a survey cited by Tarr concerning state supreme court justices up for retention from 1964 to 2000, less than 2% were defeated. And in other research, Judicial retention election trends,” by Bradley University Political Science Professor Larry Aspin, from 1964 to 2006, only 56 jurists out of 6,306 were not retained. This is less than 1% or 0.88804 percent!

Not much has changed since 1977 when William Jenkins Jr. wrote Retention Elections – Who Wins When No One Loses? and reported that only 3 judges were defeated out of 350 up for retention.

In Arizona, where merit selection and judicial retention elections have existed since 1974, it gets even better. Only two judges have ever been ousted.

And in an indictment of the insularity of retention elections, Maricopa County, Arizona Superior Court Judge Philip Marquardt “was retained by voters in 1988 despite a misdemeanor marijuana conviction that year.” Also see “Chief Justice Ruth McGregor is fighting the legacy of a judge’s transgressions two decades ago” – Phoenix New Times.

Parenthetically, it’ll be interesting to compare whether or not the electorate in the adjoining judicial retention state of New Mexico is equally apathetic, easy-going or uninformed when 2 unfortunate New Mexico district court judges recently in the news come up for retention again – – – assuming they’re not convicted and actually sit for retention.

Both the Hon. Michael T. Murphy and the Hon. Albert S. “Pat” Murdoch are presumed innocent unless proven guilty of some incredibly awful charges being brought against them, which respectively include, bribery allegations for the former, and rape allegations for the latter. Also see New Mexico Judge indicted as the “corrupting influence of money” can threaten merit selection, too and “Capitol Report | New Mexico » Judge Albert Pat Murdoch” and Judges Behaving Badly? A Slew of Lurid Allegations « Above the Law”


Gotta love the job security.

Judicial retention elections bring a level of job security as good, if not better than that reported on Wednesday by USATODAY.com at “Death more likely than losing federal job.” Federal workers are the envy of private sector employees who can be downsized, laid-off and kicked-out. Federal employees don’t get fired. They retire or die in the saddle.

And like the defenders of merit selection and retention elections who pound the self-serving pulpit of prevailing professional perfection, the “USA Today” news story by Dennis Cauchon quotes a HUD spokesman who says his department’s 99.85% job retention rate is about “a skilled and committed workforce.” Adding, “We’ve never focused on firing people, and we don’t intend to start now. We’re more focused on hiring the right people.”

So much for employee differentiation, “forced ranking” and always turning over the bottom ten percent per “The Welch Way” and “Jack Welch’s Principles.” But as Dashiell ‘Dash’ Parr said in “The Incredibles, when everyone’s the same and we’re all “special,” it’s “another way of saying no one is.”

“I could have been a contender.”

In April of this year, the Phoenix NPR affiliate KJZZ ran a brief segment on judicial merit selection. The show was prompted by passage of SCR 1001, which the State Bar of Arizona lauded as a big deal rather than what it really is, “much ado about nothing” as to reform – – –  and ‘much ado about a lot’ as to ossifying the status quo.

In papering over an important topic, the program made only a half-baked effort at balancing opposing views. See, for example, Merit selection & retention elections: Lifetime-tenure-light … and “Playing “small ball” on judicial merit selection and retention in Arizona” and “Revisiting Judicial Selection in Arizona and elsewhere.”

File:Eva marie saint marlon brando waterfront 12.jpgInterestingly, having been turned down by bigger names, a KJZZ producer reached the nadir of the legal blogosphere to extend an invitation to “The Irreverent Lawyer” for a contrarian view. However, for a number of inconvenient reasons, not the least being the last-minute invitation or that I was sorting my sock drawer – – – but really because I was out of the office attending to visiting out-of-state family, I didn’t participate.

So instead, I opted for “a one-way ticket to Palooka-ville.” Had I appeared on the show, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. . .” like Terry in On the Waterfront. Oh, well.

As for SCR 10o1, the so-called reform legislation awaiting voter ratification, it leaves merit selection and judicial retention pretty much alone. The minor changes are that there’ll be at least 8 nominees sent to the Governor instead of 3; the State Bar keeps its influential role with a seat at the nominating commission table; and the Bar will continue exerting its clout through the power to anoint the 4 lawyers appointed by the Governor to the court nominating commissions.

Furthermore, the frequency of what passes for voter accountability, i.e., judicial retention elections, will be deferred even longer since judicial terms will increase to 8 years. And the length of insularity from electoral constituents will be further augmented as well since the age of retirement will go up from 70 to 75.

Toothless roaring.

photoAnd in a toothless roar, a joint legislative committee “may” conduct hearings on judges prior to retention elections – – – but these hearings are purely “informational.” So assuming the committee even meets, await the sound and effect produced by one hand clapping.

So as it turned out, the KJZZ broadcast was hardly a substantive debate. The producer did manage to scrounge up a bigger name from the more respectable academic closet and not the blogosphere.  The guest was Chris W. Bonneau, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of “In Defense of Judicial Elections” with Melinda Gann Hall of the University of Michigan.  However, the resulting discourse suggested a straw man’s tepid advocacy for open judicial elections.

Speaking in support of the current system was former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice the Hon. Ruth V. McGregor. The April 27, 2011 program can be heard at “Here & Now: Judge Merit Selection” by Steve Goldstein for KJZZ.

I won’t recap the highlights since there weren’t any. It was the same-old-same-old stuff about not fixing something that ain’t broken, etc.

But what was disappointing was that neither the host nor Professor Bonneau mentioned ‘the elephant in the living room’ and that is that retention elections are tantamount to lifetime tenure. Consequently, the process does nothing for accountability but everything for judicial independence since judges are almost never ousted because voters rarely pay attention.

One caller and “the rolloff effect.

And in a testament to Arizona’s disinterest, the merit selection broadcast garnered only one caller.

Voters who similarly don’t pay attention, skip the list of retention election judges on the ballot – – – but who otherwise vote the rest of the ballot are known as the roll-off effect in judicial retention elections.”

Indeed, according to Professor Larry Aspin’s already mentioned Judicial retention election trends,” “For the 1976-1994 period rolloff in Arizona was 33.2%, whereas it increased to 43.1% for the 1996-2006 period. The increase is primarily in Maricopa County where rolloff has increased substantially from an average 35.3% in the 1976-1994 period to an average 48.8% in the 1996-2006 period, peaking at 54.5% in 2004.”

And while merit selection/retention proponents are fond of saying “the system works,” Arizona rolloff grows and grows.

Abandoning Merit Selection? Perish the thought. The system works alright – – – to preserve incumbency, insularity, job security, and a profitable future retirement.

Photo Credits: “toothless roar” by Genista, Kai Schreiber, at Flickr;Cowboy on horse in Field BC.jpg, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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