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Direct election gives Yuma city court judges a unique independence, new Goldwater Institute report argues

November 16, 2017

Phoenix—What sets Yuma courts apart from all other Arizona city courts? Its judges. They’re elected by the people, not appointed by politicians. In a new report, Goldwater Institute National Investigative Reporter Mark Flatten reveals through interviews with judges and other experts that Yuma judges are protected from the outside influence that affects other Arizona municipal courts.

The third paper in a series about the Arizona municipal court system, City Court: Elections Protect Judges from “Good-Old-Boy” System of Appointment examines how Yuma judges have a level of independence that judges in other Arizona cities don’t have. Yuma has been electing its judges since the city’s first charter after statehood was adopted. “In every other Arizona city, municipal court judges are both selected and retained without ever facing voters—they instead answer to city councils,” Flatten said. “Yuma judges have more freedom to do what they’ve supposed to do: Consider the circumstances of each case and be impartial in their rulings.”

The positive example set by Yuma shows that judges—including city court judges—ought to face voters because it insulates them from interference by politicians and instills public confidence in the legal system. Judges whom are appointed by city councils have little protection from political pressure, particularly if they are serving vulnerable two-year terms, Flatten argues. “Facing voters creates an environment of transparency whereby judges will be held accountable to voters for their performance.”

Elections for city court judges are a potential solution to a system rife with political influence. Retention elections are already used in Arizona under the state’s merit selection system, which applies to all judges on Arizona’s Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and all superior courts in Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal Counties. Judges are appointed by the governor, who chooses from a list of candidates recommended by an independent judicial selection committee. Then when a judge’s initial term in office comes to an end, he or she faces voters in a retention election—voters give a yes-or-no vote about whether the judge gets to stay on the bench. As long as judges are doing their job, they’ll likely have no problem prevailing in such elections. “Retention election give voters the power to remove judges who don’t follow the law and Constitution, while also ensuring that judges don’t drift too far outside the mainstream of the people they serve,” Flatten explains.

In recommendations accompanying its July city courts report, the Goldwater Institute recommended consolidating city courts with county superior courts. But short of that, the Institute recommends retention elections for city court judges in order to stop city councils’ influence over the courts, in line in with a long-standing recommendation of state reform committees. Ruth McGregor, former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, agrees that retention elections could be a good solution at the municipal court level; she is part of a team working with retired U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor on a model plan for selecting and retaining judges at all levels, similar to Arizona’s merit selection system.

The previous reports in the City Court series are available on the Goldwater Institute website. Read how municipal courts can be subject to city council influence here, and read the story of Vietnam veteran Bob Stapleton’s struggle with zoning violations here.


About the Goldwater Institute

The Goldwater Institute drives results by working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and strengthen the freedom guaranteed to all Americans in the constitutions of the United States and all 50 states. With the blessing of its namesake, the Goldwater Institute opened in 1988. Its early years focused on defending liberty in Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona.  Today, the Goldwater Institute is a national leader for constitutionally limited government respected by the left and right for its adherence to principle and real world impact. No less a liberal icon than the New York Times calls the Goldwater Institute a “watchdog for conservative ideals” that plays an “outsize role” in American political life.



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