Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice

More from this show

Newly-appointed Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court Scott Bales will discuss his new position and issues relating to the court and justice system.

José Cárdenas: There's a new Supreme Court Chief Justice in Arizona. Scott Bales began his term this month. He was appointed by former Governor Janet Napolitano and has been on the bench since 2005. Joining us to discuss his plans for the court is Chief Justice Bales. Justice Bales, welcome to "Horizonte."

Scott Bales: Thank you.

José Cárdenas: We talk about plans for the court, and I think people assume that means you're going to tell us what you and your colleagues on the bench are going to do, but the court system that you're responsible for is actually much more than you and the rest of the members of the Supreme Court. Tell us about that.

Scott Bales: Well, it is much more than just the five justices of the Supreme Court. Under our Constitution the Supreme Court has administrative supervision over all the courts in the state, and that is exercised through the Chief Justice. So when you talk about the Arizona judiciary, you're talking about some 500 judicial officers that hold positions from serving as justices of the peace in our rural counties to the judges in our urban courts. And in total, the judicial branch employs nearly 10,000 people, and it includes not only those involved in court proceedings in courthouses, but people who work in other capacities, such as in a large number of probation officers. So, the judiciary is far more than just the Arizona Supreme Court and, it's more than courts and courthouses.

José Cárdenas: And when you talk about a plan, you really do have a plan. We've got a booklet right here that you put together, you with the help of a lot of other people including the members of the Arizona Judicial Council called "Advancing Justice Together: Courts and Communities, 2014-1019." This is what you're planning for the next five years. And what you just said about the scope of the courts of your jurisdiction explains things such as evaluating programs as you have here for the supervision of the seriously mentally ill, mentoring juvenile probationers and so forth, practices to reduce the risk of violence. Let's talk about some of those areas specifically. And I think people would be surprised to know that the court system is responsible for probation and care and service to juvenile offenders.

Scott Bales: Well, let me just say, as a preface, that the plan reflects that when we do have a new Chief Justice whose term is five years, that coincides with the court's announcing a new strategic agenda to sort of guide the operations of the judiciary and to identify various goals and initiatives. While in a sense, it's my plan; it's a plan that is consistent with what prior Chief Justices have done. And as you said, it reflects input from a lot of people from all around the state.

José Cárdenas: Over the course of about a year, as I understand.

Scott Bales: Right, right. It would be inaccurate, in my view, to say this is Chief Justice Bales' plan. It's a plan that the courts have prepared with input from people within the court system and the public more broadly to help us achieve our goals over the next five years. Now what you specifically asked about were I think some of the steps that we take to protect the community through supervision by probation officers or pretrial supervision. One of the goals in the plan, an important goal for the courts, is protecting children, families and communities. One of the ways that we do that is through the supervision of people who have either been released pending the disposition of their criminal case, or who once they have been determined to have offended are under some type of community supervision, and they are not held in jail or otherwise incarcerated but they are out in the community under the supervision of probation officers. And we want to make sure we're doing that in ways that prevent the recurrence of crime, that protect the communities, but also help these people develop a sort of basis for a life in the future where there won't be any infractions with the law.

José Cárdenas: What about you protecting children? There's been so much in the paper over the last several years about Child Protective Services, things that need to be done, unfortunate tragedies that have occurred. These do touch on the court system. What are you doing about that? What's in the plan to help in that score?

Scott Bales: Well, we've been working over recent years to make sure that the Court rules that govern those kinds of cases, and they're dependency cases. They're cases where the state intervenes because parents have failed to provide the care needed for their children. We want to make sure those rules serve the interests of protecting the children, and make sure the cases move through as quickly as possible. With the changes in Child Protective Services, with the creation of the new department, there may be an increase in those kinds of cases that actually end up in court. And if that happens we'll shift resources to accommodate that. But it -- it is obviously a very important issue. And it partly reflects Arizona's situation in terms of our demographics. We have a relatively high percentage of people in this state who are 18 years or younger, almost 29% of the state's population. And that means that as a court system we have to recognize that a significant portion of our cases will involve young people, in one way or the other, whether they are dependency cases or cases where a youth has committed perhaps some criminal violation, so it's a juvenile delinquency case, or children who are involved in the family court system because their parents are divorcing, or there are other family law issues.

José Cárdenas: And speaking of demographics, there are a few others that are of relevance to the plan that I reviewed. One of them being the large number of Spanish language speakers that we have in this state. What is in this plan directed toward them?

Scott Bales: There are actually several things that recognize that in Arizona we have a large number of people that do not speak English as their primary language. So we've been working to ensure that we have sufficient interpreters in courts throughout the state -- and that's a challenge because here and nationally there is something of a shortage of people that are qualified to be court interpreters in Spanish and in many other languages. So we're working in that regard. We've also been working to ensure that on websites there is information available that's translated into Spanish. We've made great strides over the last year, both on our court's website and on the superior court websites, for the different counties around the state. People can access various court forms in a translated version, so that they are better able to understand them if their primary language or the language that they are more fluent in is Spanish rather than English. The documents that are filed in court have to be filed in English. But this is a way people can perhaps better understand what it is they are being asked to submit to the court. We have, with the help of the Maricopa County Superior Court we have set up a site called the Centro de Auto Servicio. And it' basically a set of hundreds of forms that are translated into Spanish that people can access online throughout the state, and those forms are consistent with forms that other Superior Courts also use.

José Cárdenas: Another demographic of significance in Arizona is the large number of veterans we have returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have difficulty readjusting to civilian life and end up in trouble, involved in the court system. What's going on with the veterans' courts that are mentioned here?

Scott Bales: Well, that's another thing that we're looking at as part of our goal of better protecting our communities. It's a variation of something that's often called a specialty court. The veterans' courts basically handle certain kinds of criminal cases in which a veteran's involved. And they try to determine if the infraction -- say, you know, someone that's disturbing the peace or maybe a public intoxication infraction, if that reflect a broader or different problem that could be remedied if a person were connected with various kinds of social services or perhaps a substance abuse program. And we've found that approach has worked very successfully for drug courts and mental health courts. As you mentioned, Arizona has a large veteran's population. I was surprised, it's something on the order of more than a half a million veterans are in our state. With the support of the veteran's community, we've set up pilot projects in several courts both here in Maricopa County and some of the rural counties, such as Mohave, where we're trying to development veterans' courts. And it's an approach that recognizes that beyond just deciding a particular case, there will be circumstances where courts best serve their communities by trying to help solve the underlying problem.

José Cárdenas: Mr. Chief Justice, you have served on and now will lead a court system that has been recognized throughout the country and in many, many areas. Let's talk about some of the marks of distinction of this court system and what challenges if any that presents for the future.

Scott Bales: Well, as you mentioned, our court has been nationally recognized, and I say that talking about Arizona's court system collectively from our local justice courts and municipal courts all the way up to our appellate courts. We've been recognized as being innovative. We've been recognized as being oriented towards making the courts more accessible. Arizona courts are widely respected for the quality and integrity of their judges. And it's something I'm proud of and committed as part of our plan to continue those traditions of excellence and achievement.

José Cárdenas: And many people think one of the big reasons we are recognized for the quality and integrity of our judges, as you put it, is that for the Supreme Court, for the appellate courts, for the superior courts in the larger counties the judges are appointed. There's an appointment process, as opposed to running for election. As I understand it this is the 40th anniversary of merit selection, is that right?

Scott Bales: Yes, the voters in 1974 approved the system that we now use to pick the Superior Court judges in three of our counties -- Maricopa, Pima and Pinal -- and the appellate judges for the entire state. So the justices, the judges on the court of appeals and the trial judges in our more populated counties are all appointed under this system. It has worked very well. It's a system where the people are ultimately appointed as judges go through a public application process, and they are reviewed by 15-person committees. And of the 15 people, 10 are non-lawyer members of the community. And their charge is to identify nominees they think are the best qualified. They come up with a slate of nominees and the Governor ultimately appoints from the list the commission identifies. And I think that has served Arizona very well.

José Cárdenas: I think most people agree. And yet, this is something you cover here about relationships with the other branches of government. That's a constant source of dispute with the executive and with the legislature about our merit selection system with others thinking that elections would be better or at least more control over the selection process. What do you see happening in the future? And let's end the interview there -- on a noncontroversial subject.

Scott Bales: [laughter] I think that people who understand how our courts work, and understand the successes we've achieved in serving our communities well, do support merit selection. And I think it's a challenge for our courts to improve how we communicate, not only with other branches of government but also the community more generally about what it is courts do. Because we have a tradition of excellence in our judiciary that we should make sure other people understand. Part of the theme of the new strategic agenda, the title of the new strategic agenda is "Advancing Justice Together." And it recognizes that for our courts to succeed we need the support of our communities and the support of other parts of government. And I think we earn that by continuing to do a good job and affording justice to all Arizona. And we do that by better communicating with those for whom we serve.

José Cárdenas: Mr. Chief Justice Bales, congratulations on your appointment. Thanks for joining us on "Horizonte" and best of luck on implementing the plan. It's an ambitious one. We wish you the best

Scott Bales: Thank you.

Scott Bales:Chief Justice, Arizona Supreme Court;

President Biden for the 2024 State of the Union address.
airs March 7

State of the Union

Stewart Udall: The Politics of Beauty

A cute little duckling with text reading: Arizona PBS Ducks in a Row Event
March 6

Getting Your Ducks in a Row to Avoid Conflict When You Are Gone

A cactus blooms in the Sonoran Desert
aired Feb. 28

Desert Dreams: Celebrating Five Seasons in the Sonoran Desert

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: