Vote 2014: Judicial Retention

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In Arizona, judges on the state level and in the two largest counties are not elected, but are appointed. However, every election they are up for retention and can be voted off the court. Judges are rated by those who use the court system, and those results are available for review by voters. In this election cycle, the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance has issued a rare non-retention for a judge in Pima County. Mike Hellon, chair of the commission, will discuss how you can find out information about judges on the ballot.

Ted Simons: One thing voters will be deciding in November is whether or not certain judges should be retained. Here to discuss how voters can learn about judges up for retention and how judicial performance reviews work in Arizona is Mike Hellon, chairman of the commission on judicial performance. Thanks for being here.

Ted Simons: Arizona's judicial retention system. Give us an overview.

Mike Hellon: Well, it's part of the merit selection system whereby in the major counties we select judges on elements of merit, not on politics. But as a check on that, we give the people a chance every four years to vote whether those judges appointed by the governor should be retained in office. Our job on judicial performance review commission is to evaluate each judge's performance who is up for retention and report our findings to the public as to our best judgment whether they should be retained or not.

Ted Simons: Just basics here, this is every four years, every judge, every four years is up for retention?

Mike Hellon: Every superior court judge and Pima, Maricopa and Pinal County is up for retention every four years. The appellate court judges and divisions one and two and the Supreme Court are up every six years.

Ted Simons: Judicial performance review commission is what?

Mike Hellon: A constitutional commission appointed by the Supreme Court, consists of 30 members representing public members, judicial members, some lawyers from Maricopa, Pima and Pinal County and a few from outside of those counties. I serve by appointment as chairman by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Ted Simons: Basically, the commission then looks at judges and, what, votes on their performances, their standards? How does that work?

Mike Hellon: We survey litigants, witnesses, jurors, staff members, lawyers, anybody, any category of person who has firsthand knowledge of each judge's performance in the courtroom. We gather that data. We ask people to give us their best judgment of whether that judge merits retention on a broad array of subjects. Legal knowledge, application of the law, judicial temperament, fairness, administrative ability. Communications. It is a very, very broad based decision making process.

Ted Simons: Indeed other information can be submitted by the public?

Mike Hellon: Yes. We hold public hearings. In each County, Pinal, Maricopa and Pima, before we make our decisions. We invite the public to come in and give us whatever input they think we need to know to make a good decision about any particular judge.

Ted Simons: Then voters then have basically the judges are listed along with numbers and how they did in each particular standard?

Mike Hellon: Are you talking about what we look at?

Ted Simons: Yes. What do voters get to see too?

Mike Hellon: They are anonymous to us when we make our judgment. We have codes. We review Maricopa civil judge 10, for example. We don't know who that judge is unless there is an issue with the judge we want to explore and the judge comes before us to meet with us. At that point of course we know who it is. We render our judgments primarily anonymously. But the judge's names are on the ballot. There's a transition from our vote for Maricopa judge 10 to John Jones, who is that judge.

Ted Simons: We as voters see John Jones.

Mike Hellon: You see that on the ballot.

Ted Simons: We see how they voted.

Mike Hellon: That's correct. You see how we voted, whether 29 commissioners voted yes or 29 commissioners voted no.

Ted Simons: How often do judges not meet standards?

Mike Hellon: I have been on the commission for nine years. There have been four times in my memory that we have voted not to retain a judge.

Ted Simons: I notice this go round I found one in Maricopa County superior court and one in my ma County superior court.

Mike Hellon: That's very unusual.

Ted Simons: One in Maricopa County, 25 of 29 voted against. That sounds unusual.

Mike Hellon: It's remarkably unusual.

Ted Simons: Communication skills and temperament on this particular judge seem to be the biggies. I notice we have done this a few years, looked at this particular issue. Communication skills. That's always a factor when things don't go correctly. Is that always a biggy?

Mike Hellon: Well, it is. Communications in my view is a euphemism for what I think is one of the most essential parts of our court system. That's the manner in which decisions are made. I believe that in order for our courts to have the confidence of the public, every litigant, every defendant, every person who appears before a judge needs to -- whatever the outcome needs to know and believe and feel that his or her point of view, concerns, situation has been not just heard by the judge but understood, considered, and became part of the decision making process. When we find that the judge is a little bit imperil, not considering the input from the litigants, we tend to respond negatively.

Ted Simons: That blends into judicial temperament.

Mike Hellon: Exactly. How people are treated. They need to be treated, whatever else the situation is in a courtroom they need to be treated with fairness and respect.

Ted Simons: So what if I'm a judge and I see these, I'm not doing too well and I think I'm fantastic. How do judges respond?

Mike Hellon: Part of what we do, it's kind of a parallel process, we have conference teams. Every single judge regardless of whether the commission votes to retain or not retain, every single judge is met by a three-member team, a judge, a lawyer, a public member, who goes over the findings of the surveys in detail and they talk about where -- you're pretty good here but you need a little bit of help here. We provide that information to the presiding judge of each court, and we encourage the judges to seek, could be mentoring, could be maybe a communications course, whatever he or she needs to do to beef up his or her performance. And I have to tell you, most of the judges respond very favorably.

Ted Simons: Interesting. I was going to ask. Do they listen? Do they respond?

Mike Hellon: Conversely, the judges that we think less of tend to respond less well. The good judges respond very well to that kind of input.

Ted Simons: That makes sense. So as voters how do we learn about how these judges did by way of these standards?

Mike Hellon: You go to our website. You probably have it on the screen. I think it's WWW.judicial...AZcourts.gov/JPR. Forgive me, I should have known. In Maricopa County every judge up for retention you'll see how we evaluated that judge.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.

Mike Hellon: I enjoyed it. Thank you.

Mike Hellon:Chair, Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance;

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