Some law scholars are concerned about the increased politicization of judicial elections, and hold up Arizona as an example of politics edging its way in to a branch of government where it doesn't belong.
Some counties in Arizona elect judges outright, while in other counties judges are appointed, and then voters decide whether each judge stays in the position every four years. Those retention elections can get heated. Last year, one of Arizona's Supreme Court justices was targeted during his retention. At least one Republican group said it was unhappy with decisions the court made, and urged voters to turn down another term. Justice John Pelander was retained.
In addition, Arizona is one of several states in which voters recently rejected attempts to change the way judges get their jobs in the first place. Last year, voters turned down a measure that would have given the governor expanded authority to appoint judges in the state’s biggest counties, said Alicia Bannon, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law.
“The voters actually have rejected them, they’ve seen it for what it is, attempts to politicize the bench more, strip away some of that insulation that’s supposed to be around the courts,” she said.
Though the Arizona measure failed last year, state lawmakers including state House Speaker Andy Tobin have said they expect to see it back again next year.
The more politics enter the judicial branch of government, the more money is spent on judicial elections, even if they’re just an up or down vote on whether to keep a judge, said Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, an organization that tries to keep courts impartial to politics.
“On the whole we have seen some efforts in Arizona and around the country to tamper with merit selection systems," he said.
Politicized elections, or less oversight of appointments, run the risk of inserting money and politics into the judicial branch, Bannon said.
“The public needs to be confident that our courts are not for sale," she said.
For states where elections continue, the Brennan Center for Justice wants states to strengthen laws to protect against politics in court. That includes stronger campaign finance disclosure laws, so voters know who is contributing to campaigns in judicial elections, and a new campaign finance system, Bannon said.
“We also need public financing for judicial races, so that candidates can have the choice to run competitive campaigns without needing to rely on the special interest dollars," she said.
This is because more money is being spent on judicial elections, Brandenburg said.
“In general if you look at the numbers and look back over the last decade, the amount of money that typically goes into those elections was one percent of other elections," he said. "Now, it’s a bit higher because they can be targeted."