Arizona Supreme Court voids law giving governor more choices in judicial selection

The Arizona Supreme Court has struck down a new law designed to give the governor a greater say in the selection of judges.

The court, in a unanimous ruling Friday, said the law, which directs a judicial nominating commission to submit at least five nominees to the governor for each judicial vacancy unless the commission rejects an applicant by a two-thirds vote, conflicts with the state constitution, which requires the commission to recommend “not less than three” nominees for each vacancy.

“When a state statute conflicts with Arizona’s Constitution, the constitution must prevail,” Vice Chief Justice Scott Bales wrote (PDF) for the court.

Lawyers for the state legislature contended that the law did not conflict with the constitution, but merely supplemented it with new procedures. They also noted that even under the new law, a nominating commission could still send the governor just three names.

But Bales said the law’s requirement that the commission submit at least five names to the governor unless it rejects a candidate by a two-thirds vote “fundamentally changes” the selection process set forth in the constitution.

Justice at Stake, a judicial reform organization, hailed the ruling as a “decisive victory” for the defenders of fair and impartial courts. The group, which had filed a legal brief urging the court to strike down the law, contended that it would politicize the selection of state judges.

“Arizona’s existing merit selection system has helped insulate judges from politics for decades, and today’s ruling means this system remains firmly intact,” Bert Brandenburg, its executive director, said in a prepared statement.

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