Groups campaign to oust Arizona Supreme Court judge - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Groups campaign to oust Arizona Supreme Court judge

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Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 5:09 pm, Thu Oct 25, 2012.

A loosely organized effort to oust a state Supreme Court justice is forcing him to consider an unprecedented campaign to keep his post.

Justice John Pelander said he is upset by "hit pieces'' being put out by groups urging that he not be retained on the bench this year. He said the information being circulated about a September ruling is "misleading'' at best.

Pelander, worried, though, about the problems of mounting an active campaign, a first for a Supreme Court justice since direct elections were scrapped in 1974. Rules for judges on political activity would constrain what he can say and Pelander is precluded from soliciting the necessary funds himself.

But attorney Paul Eckstein said he may run a separate campaign, independent of Pelander, to combat the efforts to oust the judge. And Eckstein, a Democrat, said he is doing that despite the fact that Pelander is a Republican appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer.

Campaign materials being put out by groups as diverse as the Williams Tea Part and Legislative District 18 Republican Committee are urging a "no'' on the ballot question about retaining Pelander.

The anger is focused on Pelander because the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled that Proposition 121 can be on the ballot. That measure, if approved, would amend the state Constitution to create an open primary system where all candidates run against each other regardless of party affiliation, with the top two advancing to the general election.

It's not just that these groups oppose an open primary.

They point to testimony that some petition signatures were forged. But Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Rea limited testimony to just two hours for each side, leaving anti-121 attorney Mike Liburdi without time to introduce all the evidence he wanted.

Three justices of the Supreme Court, including Pelander, refused to overturn that decision and order Rea to give Liburdi more time.

Virtually identical statements on mailers and web sites various political pieces said Pelander should be removed from the bench for agreeing with the ruling "in the face of overwhelming evidence of fraudulent signatures ... including thousands submitted by a convicted forger.'' And the statements complain about the two-hour limit.

Under the system approved by voters in 1974, judges of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and counties of more than 250,000 are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees screened by special panels. The judges stand for election on a retain-or-reject basis; for Supreme Court justices, that occurs every six years.

There have never been active efforts to deny a new term to a sitting high court judge, much less actual rejection.

Brewer, who put Pelander on the bench, does not support the effort to remove him, even though she is opposed to Proposition 121.

"Gov. Brewer hasn't agreed with every decision Justice Pelander has made,'' said press aide Matthew Benson. "Nor is that the expection.''

He said Brewer wants judges who "look at issues fairly, impartially and with respect for the law and the constitution'' and believes that Pelander "continues to do that.''

Pelander said those seeking his replacement should review the order upholding Rea's decision to understand why the court ruled the way it did.

"Our decision had to be based on the trial court record,'' he said. And Pelander said the Sept. 6 ruling came as county officials said they had to start printing the ballots.

The order also said Liburdi knew ahead of time he had only two hours to make his case and that Rea did nothing wrong in cutting him off when his time was up.

"Whether we agreed or disagreed with the proposition has no bearing on it at all,'' Pelander said.

Calls and messages seeking comment from the various organizations circulating the anti-Pelander materials were not returned.

Pelander said on one level he wants to mount a defense.

"Just as a human being, forget being a judge, when you have statements made about you that you believe are mischaracterizations or misinformation, your gut reaction is to want to correct that and defend yourself,'' he said.

But Pelander acknowledged that no judge at any level has been denied a new term since 1978. And, that, he said, may make it preferable to just say nothing and presume his race will turn out OK.

It is not unusual for some organizations to issue more generic calls to voters urging them to reject all judges who are up for election. For example, some door "hangars'' from a local Republican party in the Gilbert area this year are making that recommendation. And former state Senate President Russell Pearce said voters should turn out all appointed judges until the state returns to direct election of judges.

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