One of two Republicans running for state attorney general wants to let the governor choose pretty much whoever she wants to sit on the state's high court and courts of appeals.
Andrew Thomas said Monday the current process of selecting judges for these courts and the trial courts in Pima and Maricopa counties is controlled by a "monopoly of insider attorneys." He said that does not always result in selection of the most qualified to sit on the bench.
Thomas acknowledged that what he wants would undermine the current system where a governor can choose new judges only from a list that special screening panels have determined are the most qualified. That would free the governor to pick an attorney - you have to be a lawyer to be a judge - based on political support and nothing more.
But he said the fact the governor has to run for reelection herself, as do the judges in some form, would ensure system accountability.
The idea drew derision from Tom Horne, Thomas' primary election foe. Horne said while the current system is not perfect, it reduces political influence on who sits on the bench.
Until 1974 judges were all elected by popular vote, the same as other politicians.
That year voters altered the system so that those who want to be judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and in the two largest counties apply to special commissions. Panel members screen applicants and send a list of at least three names to the governor, no more than two of whom can be from the same political party.
The governor is obligated to pick from that list.
Thomas said that hasn't removed politics from the system. Instead, he said, it happens out of sight, with those who want to be judges having their allies lobby the selection panel of "insider attorneys."
There is one panel for appellate level judges and one each for Pima and Maricopa counties.
He admitted, under questioning, that the panels actually consist of five attorneys and 10 who are not lawyers. But Thomas said the fact the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court sits in on the process unfairly influences those who lack formal law training.
Rather than scrap the entire system, Thomas is proposing a hybrid. The panels would rate each of the applicants. But the governor would be able to choose from any attorney who applied in the first place.
Thomas said, though, there are various constraints that would remain to keep a governor from choosing someone totally unqualified.
"First of all, the governor has to stand for election," he said. "And the governor is accountable to the people. So that is a check on what the governor might do in that situation."
He also pointed out that judges selected this way will remain subject to having to stand for election on a retain-or-reject basis: Voters decide whether to keep them on the bench or toss them out, starting the selection process over again.
Horne said what Thomas wants would make the system too political.
"The governor has a political agenda," he said. By contrast, Horne said, while members of the selection panels have political viewpoints of their own, they have no specific legislation they want approved, and no interest in selecting judges who would uphold those laws if challenged.
Thomas, however, said Horne's presumption is wrong. He said panel members do have their own political philosophies which reflect in who is nominated to the governor and who is not.
The only difference, Thomas said, is that these agendas are not as in the open as that of the governor.
Aside from altering how judges are chosen, Thomas wants changes in the process for reviewing sitting judges who are up for retention. That includes having the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission review and analyze each judge's rulings on matters of public safety or where a voter-approved measure has been overturned.