Arizona’s judges need to do a better job of explaining what they do or risk losing their independence, the new chief justice of the state Supreme Court said Friday.
Ruth McGregor said one reason for attacks on the independence of the judiciary is that the public — and even state legislators — do not fully understand what the court system does and how it works. Most recently that manifested itself in a proposal to give state senators veto power over new judges of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
That effort stalled. But McGregor, who took the oath of office Friday, said that won’t be the last attack. And that, she said, is why efforts need to start now to prevent any of them from being successful.
"We know that we can deliver justice only if our judges are able to make independent judicial decisions, free from political and special interest pressure,’’ McGregor said. And the key to that, she said, is information.
"If the judicial branch is not well or fully understood — and it is not by many — then we need to ask ourselves what we need to do to change the way that we communicate about the courts,’’ McGregor said.
The justices already took one step, retaining a public relations firm to help get that message out. Part of the reason for that deals with the restraints on what judges can do.
"We can’t go out and campaign,’’ said McGregor, like the governor or state legislators do.
"But we can go out and talk about the system and the things that we’re doing,’’ she said. "I think we haven’t done a very good job with that.’’
Much of the legislation to revamp the court system stems from arguments that it is not accountable to the public: Once judges are appointed — especially at the appellate level — they can pretty much serve until they retire.
That’s what led to the effort to give the Senate an opportunity to question prospective judges rather than simply let governors appoint whomever they want from a list prepared by a special screening panel.
McGregor, who replaces Charles Jones, remains a supporter of the current system of selecting judges , a system that first made her a judge on the Court of Appeals and, in 1998, let then Gov. Jane Hull appoint her to the Supreme Court.
Gov. Janet Napolitano, who also supports the system, acknowledged the limits on what the judges can do to keep it in place. However, she said that doesn’t leave the court defenseless.
"The members of the (State) Bar have an obligation to defend the courts,’’ the governor said.
McGregor said part of that message will get out if the judiciary meets its "overriding goal’’ to provide access to swift, fair justice.
"That means that everyone that needs our court system, whether they are represented by a lawyer or not, and regardless of any disability or minority or economic status, must have full access to the court system,’’ she said. "It means that, for the benefit of all involved, including both victims and defendants in our criminal justice system, cases must move expeditiously through our system to conclusion.’’