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Three finalists remain for AZ Supreme Court opening

Two appellate judges and a small-town judge were chosen Sept. 30 as finalists to fill a vacancy on the Arizona Supreme Court.

Two of the finalists were Republicans, and one was a Democrat.

The Republicans were Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Robert Brutinel and Ann Scott Timmer, chief judge of the Arizona Court of appeals.

The Democrat was Diane Johnsen, of the Arizona Court of Appeals.

The finalists were chosen from among nine judges who had applied to the state’s judicial nominating commission. Gov. Jan Brewer will appoint one of them to replace former Justice Michael Ryan, who retired from the Supreme Court in August.

“It’s an excellent slate,” said Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, who chaired the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.

Timmer and Johnsen were among finalists in 2009 when Brewer chose John Pelander to replace Justice Ruth McGregor on the state’s highest court.

Before choosing the finalists, the nominating commission interviewed each of the nine applicants in a public meeting attended by the media.

There was some discussion about sending five nominees to the governor, but that would have required at least a second Democrat. And Judge Maurice Portley of the Arizona Court of Appeals, the only other Democrat in the bunch, didn’t pass muster.

“Judge Portley has had a distinguished career, but quite honestly I don’t think his interview was that outstanding,” Commissioner Dewey Schade said.

The state Constitution dictates that the commission can choose only two finalists of the same political party if three finalists are nominated. If there are more than three nominees, no more than 60 percent can be from the same political party.

The nominating commission came up with a list that also included Republican judges Lawrence Winthrop and John Gemmill, both of the Arizona Court of Appeals.

The 14-member commission voted unanimously to nominate Timmer and Johnson; Brutinel got 11 votes; Winthrop got six, and Gemmill got five.

During the interviews, Johnsen said empathy was a good quality for a judge, but it can’t control the outcome of a case if it is contrary to law.

President Barack Obama took flak during the Senate confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagen earlier this year when he said empathy was an essential ingredient in arriving at just decisions.

When answering a question about moral courage, Timmer told a story about how she lost a friend who had been one of her bridesmaids and some colleagues in the courthouse stopped speaking to her after she had written a decision that upheld Arizona’s statutory ban on gay marriage in 2003.

“When you get a case like that, you have to take a breath and remember your oath,” she said.

When answering a question about judicial accountability, Brutinel said there is no escaping it for him because he lives in the small town of Prescott and he often runs into the people he sees in court.

“I get my accountability in the grocery store,” he said.

Click here to see a history of Arizona Supreme Court finalists and appointees for the past 35 years.

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