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Voters pay attention to judges’ performance

Voters pay attention to judges’ performanceMany Arizona voters seem to have done their homework before deciding the fate of dozens of judges on the November ballot.

The judges with the lowest ratings from the 30-member Commission on Judicial Performance Review received the fewest number of votes. All nine of the judges on Maricopa County Superior Court and Court of Appeals Division One who got 65 percent or fewer “yes” votes from voters also got low marks from attorneys for their legal ability.

Still, that wasn’t enough for any of them to lose their jobs.

Most of the 80 judges who were on retention ballots in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties kept their jobs by a vote of 70 percent or higher.

But a handful of Maricopa County Superior Court judges were retained with 60 percent of the vote or less, which is safely above the removal point of 49 percent, but relatively low for judicial retention elections. No judges were removed.

Mike Hellon, chairman of the commission, said the poor performance reviews and corresponding low vote tallies are proof that voters are paying attention to the commission’s evaluations and the abundance of data on each judge published in the Secretary of State’s Voter Pamphlet. He said it’s a trend that has been occurring the last few election cycles.

Judges in the three largest counties are appointed by the governor and face retention by voters every four years. The commission evaluates the judges who are up for retention, decides whether they are fit to serve, and passes along its determinations to voters.

The commission rarely recommends the removal of a judge. The last time was in 2008, and voters still retained Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Crane McClennen by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent.

The commission also typically unanimously finds all judges to be fit to serve, but every election there are usually some the commission is split on.

This year, it was Judges John Hannah and Jose Padilla, both of Maricopa County Superior Court, who didn’t have the confidence of the commission. Ten commission members didn’t think Hannah was qualified to be a judge and eight thought the same of Padilla.

Voters retained Hannah by 56 percent to 44 percent, while the vote for Padilla was 55 percent to 45 percent.

“Fifty-five percent is damn near not being retained,” Hellon said.

“That’s a pretty dramatic result and demonstrates people are paying attention.”

Hellon said he was restricted from discussing Hannah’s and Padilla’s flaws because most of the evaluations are done in executive session.

But attorneys who evaluated the judges gave Hannah and Padilla low marks for their legal ability compared to other judges. The survey results are published in the voter pamphlet and lawyers scored most judges’ legal ability at 90 percent or higher. Hannah and Padilla got scores of 81 percent and 83 percent respectively.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Connie Contes got the lowest grade for her legal ability, 67 percent, and voters retained her by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.

Only one of the 18 judges in Pima County up for retention got less than 70 percent of the vote, Judge Leslie Miller, who got 69.78 percent.

And while lawyers gave her a good score for her legal ability, seven members of the commission didn’t think she was fit to serve on the bench.

Hellons said he hopes that judges who are up for retention in the future will take notice that voter tallies are beginning to reflect the evaluations of the commission.

“Perhaps those on the margins will do a little bit better job of working on the things that need attention in their performance,” Hellon said.

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