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John Pelander: Stepping off the bench



Justice John Pelander has given more than 23 years of his life to the Arizona court system and now it’s time for his swan song.

With just one more month to serve on the Arizona Supreme Court, Pelander reflects on his time serving with colleagues he loves and the job that still challenges him intellectually.

“I’ve said I’m kind of in a rut, but I like my rut,” he said.

After he retires he is set to go back to his home in Tucson to spend time with his wife and her 101-year-old mother who is “sharp as a tack.”

Why are you retiring?

I’ve got about 23 and a half years in the state system now. I just turned 68 last weekend. There’s a mandatory age 70 retirement under the state Constitution so I would’ve had two more years had I chosen to serve. The reason I am stepping down now is all family-related.  I love my job and I love my colleagues and I am not burned out at all. I will miss the job tremendously. It was the right decision, but still a hard decision. … The timing was right for me to step down given family circumstances. We have to learn to embrace change and go in with a positive attitude, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

Why March 1?

No rhyme or reason, really. I wanted to give some time so the merit selection could play out.

Have you looked over the list of applicants yet?

I’ve seen the list. It’s a great list. I know some people on there better than others. I know all of them to some extent. It’s a really good, deep list and I have such confidence in the merit selection that whatever names are submitted to the governor I have no doubt whoever replaces me will be a fine judge.

Do you think your eventual successor should come from Pima County like you did?

I don’t know where you would put it in the scale of importance, but I think it is somewhat important to have representation on the court. There used to be somewhat of a half-hearted joke down in Tucson – they would call it the Maricopa Supreme Court or the Phoenix Supreme Court. It’s a state Supreme court. … There is some value in having geographic diversity – both rural and urban.

What qualifications do you think a future justice should have?

You need people that are willing to have an open mind. To truly be objective, fair and impartial in evaluating issues. People that are very good listeners – active listeners. It’s important to listen to reasoned views and opinions of your colleagues. Somebody that aspires to this position should be able to write well, likes to write, can research issues and likes to research. Being able to see all sides of an issue and not being close minded.

Will you continue to serve on the bench for Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix?

Any case that I am on I will continue to be on even after retirement. … There’s a provision in the Arizona Constitution Article 6 Section 20, which allows for a callback to sit on cases post-retirement.

How does a judge prepare for eventual public outcry on a decision that has to be made on a case?

Part of our job is making sure we try to stay focused to the issue at hand. Do our best in researching, analyzing and considering it and listening to all sides of the issue making the most reasoned decision we can make. As judges, we simply cannot have our decision-making influenced by the repercussions. That doesn’t mean we never think about the real world circumstances. We do.

What is your opinion on the leaked Invest in Ed decision?

I was beyond exasperated. It was really bad and I don’t know how, when, or why that happened, but I was really irate. I hope it never happens again; that’s all I can say about it.

You’ve been the subject of two campaigns to get you removed from the court on a retention vote in 2012 and 2018. What was that like?

Those were fun.

What went through your head during the one in 2012?

The case did not seem very controversial, it was not a difficult decision for us to reach, but it seemed to infuriate people. But I was the only one on the ballot in 2012, so that ended up in a campaign against me. I received advice from people I trusted who suggested I should respond in some fashion so I did – against my own personal inclination. It was out of my comfort zone like a duck out of water, but I was easily retained.

What will you miss most about this job?

The people. Across the board. I love my colleagues. I like working with law clerks fresh out of law school. They are energetic and up on the law. Their research skills are amazing. I love the intellectual stimulation this job brings.

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