James Beene: Last stop on the bench


Newly-appointed Arizona Supreme Court Justice James Beene gravitated toward his profession in the same way a lot of young kids do — he fell in love with a book.

He reminisced about reading a popular piece of literature as a kid and how it shaped him into a legal career. Several years later, he reached a milestone he didn’t expect — to sit as a justice on the Supreme Court, and a historic appointment at that.

When Beene was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court, he became Gov. Jan Brewer’s first judicial appointment. He helped Gov. Doug Ducey make history with his fourth Supreme Court pick, and he is now just the second Hispanic to sit on the highest court in Arizona.

Beene still has two months before his first case, but he is definitely excited about this new gig.

You recently just got appointed. Can you tell me about the process this time around?

There was obviously some word getting around about [Justice John] Pelander planning to retire. When I heard, I contemplated wanting to move. It was a normal application process. I contacted people – the same ones I contacted for the Court of Appeals job. It had only been under two years since my appointment to the Court of Appeals.

What was different about this time?

There wasn’t really all that much in variation.

What type of questions did the governor ask you?

Questions about judicial philosophy, mostly. How would I go about deciding cases? What do I do in my off time, and where I get my news from? Standard interview questions.

And where do you get your news from?

A wide variety. I like Real Clear Politics. I’ll read anything from Huffington Post and Vox to The Washington Times. A very broad spectrum. I try to stay clear from TV news. It’s so vitriolic. So, I like a broad spectrum of reporting.

There was some controversy in the Legislature this session regarding how Ducey makes his appointments when it comes to diversity. How important is that in the judicial branch?

It’s constitutionally mandated to consider a diverse bench. The commission has to look into all qualifications, along with racial and ethnic backgrounds, diversity of experience and geography. There are a lot of layers of diversity the governor should look at. All entities do a very good job of vetting diversity.

Do you think it’s fair for Senator Martin Quezada to vote no on all candidates to the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments who do not represent a diverse background?

I don’t know if I really want to opine what senators say on the floor. We have a very healthy separation of powers and I know Quezada does a good job for his constituents and I wouldn’t want to take a position on whether that’s good or bad. He’s a fine public servant and we will leave it at that.

The first time you applied for the Supreme Court, you had just one year on the trial court. Why did you apply so early?

That was for Justice (Michael) Ryan’s vacancy. He had a unique background that he was a trial court judge and I believe at the time that there was not going to be anyone on the court with Superior Court experience and I think that’s definitely needed on the Supreme Court. The genesis of all our cases come from the trial court and I think it’s critical that at least some of the justices have trial court experience. With Justice Ryan’s retirement, that left a void in that regard and I wanted to make sure the commission and governor would appoint someone that did have some trial judge experience.

What do you think makes a good judge or justice?

Someone that can divorce their own personal feelings and opinions out of the case before you. Justice [Antonin] Scalia said it’s a poor judge that agrees with all his prior decisions. You have to come to grips with the fact that you’re not going to like all the decisions you make; and if you do like them, then you’re not that good of a judge. It’s easier said than done, because in the midst of a case, you do get invested.

Do you think the Supreme Court will be your final job?

I’m hoping that this is it. This is beyond my wildest expectations of a job, and who I get to work with, and the cases I will decide for 15 or so years; so this will probably be the swan song for my professional career. I don’t see myself retiring. I don’t know if my wife will let me come home any time before 70.

Why did you decide to get into law? 

I remember my mom reading to me – or it was assigned in sixth grade, but we read it together – “To Kill A Mockingbird.” And that was just a pivotal piece of literature in my life. The whole story of Atticus Finch and the trial – something about that just grabbed me. That we had this system – civil or criminal dispute – you went in this arena, you put on evidence, arguments, and either a judge or a jury made a decision. And I just found that fascinating, and the more I read, the more I saw on TV, the more I was inclined to gravitate toward professional law. A lot of lawyers and judges have a history background. A lot of our great politicians and presidents are lawyers. It was just a natural kind of pull to that area.

I’m also a big fan of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the movie, as well. Are there movies or shows you watch or avoid that portray law in any way?

They are fun to watch and I do watch them from time to time, but I have to say that at a certain point if something is just absolutely not how it happens in real life then I just start to laugh or make comments. I understand that it’s entertainment, but I’ve done long jury trials and there are times where I was asking questions of experts and it was about as exciting as watching paint dry or grass grow, but it had to be done. That wouldn’t fit into an hour-long “Law & Order SVU.” I get that.

As for the ones I watch … “LA Law” was a big thing in the ‘80s, but going back to when I was just thinking about what a lawyer even was, there were the “Perry Mason” reruns. So, I remember watching that with my mom. Those were litigators and I became a litigator. So, I can’t say that those didn’t impact me in some way. I wanted to be in the courtroom where I had seen and read where the action definitely was.