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Current population threshold hands Democrats dominance on Pinal bench

Unless Republicans in the Arizona Legislature can pass a ballot proposal to increase the population threshold for judicial merit selection, eight Pinal County judges who are Democrats are poised to gain what seem to be lifetime appointments to the bench.

Since the 2000 U.S. Census, Pinal County has grown in population to an estimated 390,000 people from fewer than 250,000, the constitutional threshold at which counties go from a system of directly electing judges to one in which the governor appoints them. HCR 2026 proposes to amend the Arizona Constitution to increase the population threshold to 500,000.

The populations of both Maricopa and Pima counties are well in excess of 500,000.

All 10 judges who were elected in 2008 and 2010 in Pinal County — eight of whom are Democrats — will be folded into the new system when the official U.S. Census data is issued in the next few weeks, and some of them will be up for merit retention votes in 2012, according to Jennifer Liewer, spokeswoman for the Arizona Supreme Court.

“Until the Constitution is changed, we have to follow it,” Liewer said.

HCR 2026 in its present form wouldn’t go to the ballot until 2012, meaning if voters agree to raise the threshold, the Pinal County judges who will fall under the merit system would revert back to the direct-election system.

Voters in 1974 approved merit selection for counties with populations larger than 250,000, which for now are Maricopa and Pima counties. Under the system, screening panels send short lists of nominees to the governor to choose who sits on superior courts, the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Arizona Supreme Court.

Since the system was adopted, voters in the two counties have voted to oust only one judge, and most judges are retained by overwhelming margins.

Former lawmaker Pete Rios, a Pinal County Democrat, said he unsuccessfully tried three or four times to get a referendum through to increase the population threshold.

“I simply wanted to increase the threshold before our rural judges that we elect went to merit selection,” said Rios, who is now a Pinal County supervisor.

Rios said that even though he supports merit selection for the largest counties, he considers Pinal County still small enough in population that it would be better served by judicial elections.

“It gets judges out, people get to know them,” Rios said.

Rep. Vic Williams, a Tucson Republican, said he has a similar motive for introducing HCR 2026, a proposal that would increase the threshold to 500,000.

There is a small area of Williams’ district in Pinal County, and he said he was approached by constituents from there who wanted to maintain the small-town connection they have to their judges.

Williams said it never crossed his mind that eight judges who are Democrats may effectively be seated for life.

“Partisanship is not something you would label me with,” Williams said.

Rios said his proposals died for various reasons. For instance, Republicans once wanted to rewrite one to revert Maricopa County and Pima counties back to direct elections, and in 2007, they weren’t happy with the 600,000 threshold he proposed.

Rios shrugged at the defeats.

“They gifted to Pinal County 10 Democratic Superior Court judges,” he said.

Almost.

Pinal County had nine Democratic Superior Court judges before the 2010 election. One judge retired, and voters replaced him with a Republican. Then voters elected a Republican to fill a newly created judicial spot.

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