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Judicial commission finds two Arizona judges unfit for bench

jA commission that rates judges for voters has taken the unprecedented step of deeming two of them unfit to serve on the bench.

The last two times the Commission on Judicial Performance Review found that a judge didn’t live up to standards were in 2008 and 1998.  Both times, voters kept retained the judges despite the recommendation.

The commission this year found that Benjamin Norris, who sits on the family-court bench in Maricopa County Superior Court, and Catherine Woods, a Pima County Superior Court juvenile-court judge don’t meet standards. Norris was appointed by Gov. Janet Napolitano in 2008, and Gov. Jan Brewer appointed Woods in 2011.

Judge Benjamin Norris, Maricopa County Superior Court, family court

Judge Benjamin Norris, Maricopa County Superior Court, family court

Commission Chairman Mike Hellon said the law prohibits him from talking about the deliberation process, but he personally places a high value on the idea that everyone who appears in court should be treated with respect and courtesy. And regardless of the outcome, they should leave court with a sense of being treated fairly and with respect, he said.

“In my opinion, based upon everything I looked at and heard from those two judges, both failed miserably in that regard,” Hellon said.

Norris did not return a message seeking comment left with him. Woods said in a statement released by the court that the commission’s recommendations will give her guidance for improvement as a judge.

“I am committed to continuing to serve the public with dedication and integrity,” Woods said.

The information will be in the Secretary of State’s Publicity Pamphlet. Voters in the Nov. 4 election will have a choice of keeping the judges or firing them.

The commission evaluated 69 judges in Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties, and most of them were deemed fit in 29-0 votes.

Only three members said Norris met the standards and only seven said the same for Woods.

Catherine Woods, Pima County Superior Court, juvenile court

Catherine Woods, Pima County Superior Court, juvenile court

The commission mostly uses data from surveys passed out to lawyers, litigants and other court users in determining its recommendation.

Hellon said the survey results of about 18 judges caused alarm, prompting letters explaining the commission’s concerns and an invitation to meet.

Hellon said all of the judges who got letters met with the commission to explain themselves.

Norris, Woods and all the judges under review are part of the merit selection system in which judges are chosen by the governor and have to stand in a retention election every four years.

Merit selection applies to Maricopa, Pima, and Pinal counties, the three largest in the state, while judges in other counties are elected to office.

And while the commission goes to much trouble in rating the judges, voters largely ignore the recommendations given for ones with bad marks.

In July 2008, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Crane McClennen became the first Arizona judge in 10 years to be recommended for removal from the bench.

He was only the second judge to receive such a dubious recognition since the 1992 creation of the commission.

Voters fell resoundingly in favor of retaining McClennen for another four years, as well as the 59 other judges on the ballot in 2008.

McClennen was retained by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent, but it was the slimmest margin of any of the judges and he attracted more “no” votes than any of his peers.

In fact, voters have removed only two judges, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Fred Hyder and Division One Court of Appeals Judge Gary Nelson, since 1974 when the state started using the system of merit selection and voter retention.

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