Scott Bales might be teaching university students today if his graduate school professors at Harvard had made the courses more relevant to real life.
Instead the 48-year-old Bales opted to go on to law school — a path that led Gov. Janet Napolitano to naming him to become the 40th justice of the Arizona Supreme Court.
Bales, in an interview with Capitol Media Services, discussed the various employment changes that most recently landed him at the Phoenix law firm of Lewis and Roca.
He also detailed his history with Napolitano that probably helped open the door to his appointment and explained what might be seen as his fickle political affiliation: Starting as a Democrat, becoming a Republican before returning to his original party fold eight years ago.
But none of that would have happened had he been more interested in graduate school.
"When I got out of college, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do," said Bales, a 1978 graduate of Michigan State University.
"I was undecided between law school versus graduate school," he continued, the latter path being considered to becoming a professor. He ended up enrolling in graduate school for financial reasons: He had a scholarship for that but "no money for law school."
But graduate school in economics, at least at Harvard, was very specialized, Bales said.
"It was also very theoretical," he explained. "It was pretty far removed from the kinds of public policy issues that had interested me in economics as a college student."
Bales did finish that master’s degree. That allowed him to begin teaching — which, in turn, provided the income to let him go to law school.
"But as soon as I got to law school after being in graduate school I knew I was cut out to be a lawyer," he said.
He first ran into Napolitano during his stint as a law clerk for Judge Joseph Sneed of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; she was clerking at the same time for Judge Mary Schroeder.
Bales moved on to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
He later came to the Valley and took a job with the Meyer, Hendricks firm, a place he stayed for nearly a decade. He then left for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Phoenix — an office that was run by that point by Napolitano.
He eventually moved on to become state solicitor general in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office after Napolitano was elected to that post.
Bales acknowledged he changed party affiliations — twice.
But he said it had nothing to do with going after certain jobs or who was employing him.
He started as a Democrat when he came of voting age in Michigan, supporting the presidential candidacy of Jimmy Carter.
It was his time in New England, though, that led him to the GOP. Bales said he found himself politically aligned with the "moderate Republicans" who represented the area, including Sens. Lowell Weickert of Connecticut and Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.
Bales kept that affiliation for years after coming to Arizona — until 1996.
"I came to realize over time the spectrum here in terms of politics is a little different than Massachusetts or Washington, D.C.,’’ he said.
Bales’ appointment came over the objections of the Center for Arizona Policy, a group that opposes abortion and gay marriage but supports vouchers to send children to private and parochial schools. The organization labeled him a "Democratic Party activist and a Napolitano crony who has followed her from job to job for years."
Bales said he doesn’t know what he has done to incur the center’s wrath, saying he also has done work for Republican politicians.
That includes defending then Gov. Jane Hull in her decision to sign gaming compacts with some Indian tribes.
But Bales also raised eyebrows during the interviews of six applicants for the Supreme Court.
All were asked if they agree with a statement that judges should never let their own morality affect a case.
Five said they did; Bales said you can’t draw such a sharp line.
He said a judge’s personal opinion should not affect the outcome if the law or constitutional provision is clear.
"But I think there are many situations where judges face questions that aren’t answered by just reference to a text," he said. "And in those circumstances I think a judge should be guided by his or her morality."
Center for Arizona Policy lobbyist and attorney Cathi Herrod said that only confirmed her organization’s belief that he will become just another "activist judge."
But Bales said he simply was trying to express that the letter of the law doesn’t govern everything a judge does.
For example, he said, judges have some discretion in imposing sentences on people convicted of crimes. They also have to decide what is an "equitable" distribution of property in divorce cases.
And the law says that one factor that must be considered in deciding whether to impose punitive damages in civil cases is the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct. He said there is no absolute standard for a judge to use.
"It’s appropriate for judges to try to say that from a community standpoint this is or is not reprehensible," Bales said. "But still, there’s an element of morality in that,’’ he added.
"To say that a judge’s task is merely to look up in a book what a statute or constitution says and then apply that to the facts, that very much simplifies what we ask judges to do."