Ted Simons: Arizona's merit selection process calls for the governor to appoint state appellate court judges to six year terms and trial court judges and Maricopa pima and pinal county judges to four year terms. At the end of the terms voters get to decide which judges should keep their jobs. To better inform voters the judicial performance review commission provides information and recommendations on judges up for retention. I recently spoke with the commission chairman Mike Hellon. Thank you for joining us.
Mike Hellon: My pleasure. Good to be here.
Ted Simons: Let's get some basic definitions now. Judicial performance review commission. What are we talking about?
Mike Hellon: It's a constitutional commission set up as part of the broader merit selection system to select judges for the superior court and Pima, Maricopa and Pinal County and the appellate courts. It's sort of the back end of the process. Our role is to evaluate a judge's performance prior to the election and recommend to the electorate whether we believe he or she should be retained or not.
Ted Simons: who is on the commission?
Mike Hellon: It's a 30-member commission. 18 public members of which I'm one, six judges and six lawyers.
Ted Simons: how are they chosen --
Mike Hellon: They are all appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. There has to be geographical representation. I'm from Pima County. We have people from Mojave, Pinal, Maricopa County. From around the state.
Ted Simons: Okay, performance standards are considered. Performance standards are evaluated. What kind of performance standards?
Mike Hellon: Well, we look at a number of things. We look at legal knowledge. We look at the application of laws appropriately in the courtroom. We look at how jurors evaluate the judge, was the judge clear in his or her communication with jurors about what their role was in the process. We hear from litigants. Do they feel they were treated fairly? Were they treated with respect? We hear from staff, how does the judge interact with his or her staff? We review literally thousands of questionnaires from this wide array of people who have knowledge of the judge's performance in the courtroom. We evaluate their input and where we find some potential problems we'll bring the judge in and talk to him or her about those problems.
Ted Simons: You mentioned a questionnaire. Is it mostly a survey? Are there other ways to accumulate information?
Mike Hellon: We hear directly from the public. People are allowed to communicate directly with us about problems they have, and we evaluate all of. One of the important things is we don't want a judge to be rated strictly on the basis of one decision at one time. That's too narrow. What we want is a broader view of the overall performance in the courtroom. But we'll take any information anybody has that they believe is relevant.
Ted Simons: if there are not as many surveys returned for one judge as for another, what point do you try to weed out information, inaccurate information?
Mike Hellon: The more information we have the better we're able to do that. There are occasionally situations -- look, this isn't perfect. There are situations where we sometimes feel we don't really have quite enough information to work with. We have actually on a couple of occasions sent out a second array of questionnaires to try to broaden the input. We do the very best we can to make sure we have a wide array of data to work with.
Ted Simons: And if memory serves, the vast majority of these judges, the commission does recommend retention, correct?
Mike Hellon: Yes. Again, it's part of the merit selection system. On the front end these judges are vetted very, very carefully by the appointment commissions. And I will tell you right now as we speak, there are a number of judges in the state that are under investigation for various kinds of misconduct. Not a single one of them is a merit system judge.
Ted Simons: Interesting.
Mike Hellon: we believe that's because they are vetted more carefully on the front end and they know we are going to be evaluating their performance on the back end.
Ted Simons:so does it make a difference, if a voter looks at this and says, everyone has recommended you. No one is a no. Everyone is a yes. Does it make a difference?
Mike Hellon: It is beginning to. We have noticed in about the last two or three cycles that the vote or two against a judge on our commission, while it doesn't keep the commission as a group from recommending retention, it can cost that judge a point or two on the retention ballot. We have one judge this time that got six or seven or eight no votes as I recall, and I'm going to be very curious to see how that judge's numbers show up as a consequence of that vote. The public is starting to pay closer attention to what we're doing.
Ted Simons: has there ever been a judge where the commission said, this person really does need to go, need to be reconsidered, has the voting public ever gone ahead and reconsidered?
Mike Hellon: Not to my knowledge. There were a couple of judges back in the '80s in Pima County that were frankly somewhat notorious in terms of off the bench activities, and it was very close, but they both were retained. We had a judge up in Maricopa County, two cycles ago, that we recommended not be retained, and the voters retained him anyway. All we can do is the best we can in terms of providing the information. It's still up to the voters to decide what they want to do. They have to do their own due diligence.
Ted Simons: Is there a way in the process that you could see as far as improvement, something you would like to see changed?
Mike Hellon: I would like to see some of the lawyers, for example, return the questionnaires, the surveys, a little bit more quickly and thoroughly than they have. I'm not satisfied that we always get all of the information we need from all of the groups, but it's getting better. With each cycle it gets a little bit better.
Ted Simons: Is there a self-correction aspect as well when the judges find out that maybe I'm not such a swell guy and no one thinks -- I think of myself as this but the results show that. That seems to be therapeutic in and of itself.
Mike Hellon: That's a whole other part of the process. We have what we call conference teams. We have three people sit down with each of the judges and go over in greater detail some of the performance evaluations, and we have had judges take additional training in areas of anger management, let's say, or courtesy or understanding how people read body language. There are a lot of those kinds of things where we actively try to get the judge to improve his or her performance. I also think that the very fact that they know that we're doing what we're doing is always in the back of their minds, and for those who may be living on the edge a little bit with respect to anger management know that we're going to be looking and I think that helps the process.
Ted Simons: If voters want more information, find out what the commission thinks of certain judges, a trial, an appellate, where do they go?
Mike Hellon: Our website, WWW.AZjudges.info. You can see how the commission voted on each judge, look at the voter pamphlet. I don't care how people are going to vote on each judge, I want them to go to the back end of the ballot and vote the whole ballot all the way down, do their own due diligence, make their own decisions.
Ted Simons: It’s good to have you here. good information. Thanks for joining us.
Mike Hellon: My pleasure.