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Proposal would change judicial selection process

The state Senate overwhelmingly approved a proposal Monday that would prevent the State Bar of Arizona from nominating members of commissions that recommend judicial appointments to the governor.

The proposal cleared the Senate on a 20-6 vote without any comments from lawmakers. The measure now heads to the House.

Currently, the State Bar of Arizona nominates five attorneys to each of the 16-member commissions that recommend prospects for openings on the state appeals courts and Superior Court in Maricopa and Pima counties.

Voters later decide whether to retain judges or remove them from office.

If the full Legislature approves the proposed change, it would be decided by voters in late 2012.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has long championed Arizona’s system for selecting judges in speeches nationwide. As a state senator in 1974, she helped send to voters the referendum creating the existing judicial selection system, which supporters call “merit selection.”

Under the proposal, the governor would continue appointing attorneys to the commissions, but the State Bar would be eliminated from nominating people to serve on the panels.

“There is not a need to restrict the governor’s choices,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Scottsdale-based Center for Arizona Policy, which supports the measure.

Republican Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City said his proposal is aimed at breaking up the clique of insiders who have a voice in picking judges.

“Why should they decide who will judge me?” Gould said.

John Phelps, executive director of the State Bar of Arizona, said his group doesn’t make recommendations on prospects for judicial posts and instead only appoints members to serve on the judicial appointment commissions.

“Having the Bar involved in the process allows for the legal practitioners who appear in the courts to review the folks appointed to the committee,” Phelps said.

Other proposals at the Legislature this year aim to change the process for picking judges, including cases where judges have already been appointed but must clear a subsequent “retention” election by voters.

Earlier this month, the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed measures that would require a judicial performance panel to post on its website a listing of decisions made by appeals court judges and to publish summaries of judges’ decisions in a state elections pamphlet.

A more wide-ranging proposal would make judicial appointments subject to Senate confirmation. That measure has already been approved by the Senate and awaits action in the House.

Rebecca White Berch, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, said in a speech Monday at the Legislature that Arizona’s commission-based system for selecting judges is a model for others to follow.

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