The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments will delve a little deeper into the backgrounds of its next crop of redistricting commission applicants.
Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca Berch, who chairs the commission, said the panel should use the same standards for vetting applicants for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that it uses for judicial nominees, which is for members to each take responsibility for carefully researching some of the applicants. The commission decided to use the more rigorous standard at an emergency meeting on Monday.
The commission did not use that process a year ago when it selected the original candidates for the IRC because it had cull 25 nominees from a pool of dozens of applicants. But the appellate commission must only select three independent candidates for the vacant IRC chairman position, the commissioners said that kind of due diligence will be more manageable.
“The idea is we have only a few applicants … we can start dividing them up for due diligence and investigation,” Berch said.
The commission has until Dec. 1 to finalize a list of three candidates to replace Colleen Mathis, who was ousted as chairwoman by Gov. Jan Brewer and the Senate. Rather than go back to the three remaining applicants who were passed up for Mathis in March – a fourth, Ray Bladine, now serves as the IRC’s executive director – the judicial nominating panel decided to open the process to a new pool.
Potential candidates have until Nov. 15 to submit their applications, after which the appellate commission will interview candidates, research their voter registrations and other political activities, and forward a list of three finalists to four remaining IRC commissioners. The two Democrats and two Republicans will have 14 days to select a new independent chair.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said Mathis’ tenure as chair was “poisoned and clouded” by revelations that her husband, an attorney, worked for the 2010 campaign of Democratic Rep. Nancy Young Wright.
“You should all take into account that not all independents are actually independent,” Kavanagh said at the meeting. “I think you need to look for other signs of partisanship.”
Several members of the public echoed Kavanagh’s comments. Commissioner Carey Dobson said he hoped the public would also do some vetting of the candidates, whose applications will be available on the appellate commission’s website. “There’s 14 of us and there’s a lot of people in Arizona,” he said.
But even a more thorough vetting process won’t guarantee results, some commissioners said. Commissioner Doug Cole said he didn’t know if the more intensive process would have kept Mathis off the final list of candidates, while Commissioner Jane Strain noted that it would be almost impossible to find independent candidates who were interested enough in politics to want to serve on the IRC chair, but have no political baggage or activity.
“They probably all live on Mars. How many people do we know that are going to submit themselves to such a political process and they not be political? It’s almost like an oxymoron. And certainly we don’t want somebody who’s been living in a cave somewhere in Iraq,” she said after the meeting.
Things got a bit testy when Commissioner Michael Rusing suggested that research into the political activities of candidates’ spouses would help eliminate some of the problems surrounding Mathis. “I’m beginning to think we need to inquire either in the application or in the interview about spouses’ political activities. I hate to do that … but it seems to be relevant,” he said.
Commissioner Charie Wallace said she has been married to someone of the opposite party for decades and would be “highly offended” if she was interviewing for a position and was asked about her husband’s political activities. Two other commissioners quickly agreed.
“I am now getting a little bit of a nervous stomach in terms of leaning toward a McCarthyism sort of approach here. We need to be very, very thoughtful, very accurate, very objective and very independent ourselves,” Strain said.
After the meeting, Berch said she won’t personally ask applicants about their spouses. But she expressed hope that anyone who did ask the question wouldn’t use a double standard based on gender.
“Can the question be asked? I assume it can. But I’m here to tell you we’ll be asking it of all the men too,” she said.