Robes OK in campaign photos? New Commission on Judicial Conduct director has the answer for judges

Gary Grado//July 25, 2011

Robes OK in campaign photos? New Commission on Judicial Conduct director has the answer for judges

Gary Grado//July 25, 2011

As the new executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, George Riemer says he will focus heavily on educating judges in the area of political campaigning. (Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Deciding whether to pose in the black robe for a campaign ad is not just a matter of style and public relations for a judge — it also presents an ethical question.

Making the wrong choice on such a seemingly simple question can put a judge in hot water. They play by a strict set of rules that are aimed at maintaining their impartiality and upholding the appearance that they are impartial.

That’s where George Riemer comes in.

Riemer is the new executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state’s policing authority over the bench. He also has the dual role of staff director of the Arizona Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, whose job is to give judges ethical advice, and it recently considered the issue of judges wearing robes in campaign photos.

“It’s not illegal to wear a robe,” Riemer said. “But there’s some nuance there that might not be self-evident that a good ethics advisor could help with.”

Conclusion: Incumbents can be depicted in their robes, but if the photograph is in the courtroom, it has to be taken by a news agency and not for campaign purposes.

Riemer, 61, who has spent his career in the attorney ethics and discipline fields, began work July 11, taking over from Keith Stott, who retired in April after 22 years as the commission’s executive director.

Riemer and his staff of four are the first stop for the hundreds of complaints a year against the state’s judges. Last year there were 362 complaints.

But he said one of the important components of his job will be to educate judges so they can avoid trouble.

One of the areas he is going to stress is political campaigning.

Judges in 12 of Arizona’s counties and all justices of the peace are elected and they are restricted by the state’s Code of Judicial Canons on their speech and campaign activities.

But some of those canons regulating judges (and even lawyers running for judicial office) are under siege in a federal lawsuit against the commission by a Bullhead City attorney, Randolph Wolfson. He contends that those restrictions contributed to his losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, when he ran for justice of the peace and superior court, respectively.

Wolfson is fighting to be able to personally solicit campaign funds — only from campaign committees can judges accept funds, and the candidate cannot participate in fund-raising — and endorse other political candidates and campaign on their behalf. Wolfson also wants to be able to be able to give his views on disputed legal and political issues, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said that issue isn’t ripe yet for a challenge.

The other components of Wolfson’s lawsuit are still before a federal district judge.

One of Wolfson’s attorneys, James Bopp Jr., has fought successfully to get similar restrictions in other states to be deemed unconstitutional.

“If the court is going to end up invalidating some existing provision, then it will be up to the state whether to appeal, how far up to appeal depending on the appellate resolution of the issues and then, if any or a number of them are ruled unconstitutional, I guess it’s back to the drawing boards,” Riemer said.

Judges in Maricopa and Pima counties use merit selection, a process in which a screening committee selects a short list to pass on to the governor for appointment. Merit selection judges are subsequently placed on retention ballots every four years and typically do no campaigning. Pinal County, by virtue of its population exceeding 250,000, will join Maricopa and Pima counties in merit selection in the 2012 election.

One issue Reimer is sure to be confronted with next year, when lawmakers return to the Capitol, is an attempt to make everything in the judicial disciplinary system public record. A push to let voters weigh in on the issue, SCR1047, stalled this year after it cleared the Senate on a party-line vote. Its backer, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Gould, said he will bring the idea back next year.

“I believe the more transparency that we have, the better off we are,” the Lake Havasu City Republican said.

Arizona’s discipline of judges becomes more public as the punishment becomes more severe.

All hearings and legal documents are public after the Commission on Judicial Conduct files charges seeking “formal sanctions” against a judge. Such sanctions include censure, suspension or removal from the bench.

Dismissed complaints are made public, though the names of the judge and complainant are redacted.

“There’s quite a bit of information already available,” Riemer said, adding that any push to expanding transparency must be balanced with confidentiality.