The upcoming election will be the first time where voters from across Coconino County will be asked at the ballot box: Should sitting county Superior Court judges keep their seat in the courtroom?
The question is the result of the new merit selection and retention election system starting this year that is making waves through Coconino County, and now residents, county staff and elected officials are all shifting with the tide.
The Coconino County Board of Supervisors is in the process of forming committees who will choose nominees for seats on the Coconino County Superior Court, should a vacancy in the courts arise. Judge Cathleen Brown-Nichols and Judge Mark Moran will be the first to experience the new retention election system, as their current terms are the next to expire. Feedback on the judges’ performance from court staff, defendants, attorneys, witnesses and jurors was due on July 1, and is now being processed by a non-government, third-party agency from out of state.
Coconino County residents voted in support of Proposition 416 in 2018 to shift to merit selection and election retention system by a margin of 5%, earning 52% of the votes. In the past, Superior Court judges were chosen through popular votes based on political party elections where judges, expected to be unbiased, were forced to pander to party politics -- and in many cases ran unopposed. The same system is already working with judges in the Arizona Supreme Court, Arizona Court of Appeals, Maricopa County and Pima County.
According to Arizona law, counties must switch to the new system when their population reaches 250,000, like Maricopa and Pinal. Coconino County was the first county in the state to have its voters volunteer to switch to the system before the county reached that population mark.
Sheryl Prokop, Judicial Performance Review program manager with the Arizona Supreme Court, was part of the team that provided the surveys for Coconino County.
Prokop provided the Arizona Daily Sun with sample surveys that give insight into what the Arizona court system believes makes a good and effective judge.
The surveys ask witnesses questions on integrity, communication skills, judicial temperament and administrative performance. Within those broad categories, witnesses are expected to rate the performance of the judge they experienced on topics including equal treatment and fairness, courteousness, clarity about delays and proceedings, and the judge’s ability to control a courtroom.
People who interact with judges at different levels of the court system are asked different questions. For example, attorneys are asked about the judge’s administrative performance, how prompt their rulings and decisions are, and how efficiently they manage their calendar.
For those topics and more, all respondents are given six options on how to grade the judges from “Can’t Rate” or “Unacceptable” all the way to "Very Good" and “Superior.”
The first round of survey responses were due on July 1, and were given to possible respondents from February 4 to May 31. Responses were sent straight to where they are being processed at the Fort Hays State University Docking Institute, Kansas. The Docking Institute will release information about how many responses were received and what was included in the responses in early October.
Normally judges will have two sessions of surveys, a midterm session and a public session. Prokop said the midterm surveys are confidential to everyone but a conference team and the judge. They occur in the middle of a judge’s term.
“Generally they’re just used for self-improvement,” Prokop said.
The next session occurs at the end of a judge’s term and can be used to inform voters about their vote by reading how judges scored on surveys.
Due to the quickly upcoming end to their terms and the timing of the newly adopted proposition, Moran and Nichols will not be given a midterm session before this election.
Committees and commissions
In the passing of Proposition 416, the Coconino County Board of Supervisors was given a new power in the merit selection process. Each supervisor now has the burden of creating a committee of seven people from their district to nominate two judicial applicants for confirmation.
Within the seven members of the committee, no more than four can be from the same political party.
Simultaneously, the State Bar of Arizona will select lawyers for nomination, keeping party equality and the experience of the lawyers in mind. The group of nominees will be formed from all of the State Bar of Arizona and Board of Supervisor candidates, and used in the event of a vacancy on the county Superior Court. After confirmation by a commission headed by the Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice, then by the state senate, the sitting governor will eventually decide who will be appointed.
Supervisor Matt Ryan, representing Coconino County District 3 of Williams, Parks, Kachina Village and parts of Sedona, said he was excited about the new system and his committee. He hopes this system will add a layer of security to the choice.
“If we can add to having judges that are unbiased and yet have the professionalism and intelligence to be able to fairly sit on the bench, I like the process and am excited about it,” Ryan said.
Ryan said he has formed his committee and it has already worked to confirm the two nominations from his district. Ryan needed to be secure with his choices for the committee, because he is not allowed to be a part of the process to nominate judicial applicants.
Ryan’s executive assistant Gregory Nelson sat in on the committee's discussions on their judicial applicants. Nelson said they focused on which prospective members they felt would not have a bias and what experience they could bring to the position.
Ryan said District 1 has also completed its process while Districts 2, 4 and 5 are still working to appoint their judicial nominees.