08:28, June 07 35 0 abajournal.com

2018-06-07 08:28:07
How one court preseves judicial independence through strong intergovernmental relations

When I meet other judges within the American Bar Association, we invariably start comparing our positions, appointment processes and possible political influences. When I explain that I am an appointed presiding judge of a city court, they frequently ask how our process works and how I avoid being involved in political considerations in setting fines or establishing processes.

Most judges of Arizona metropolitan city courts are selected by the same process as general jurisdiction judges. We apply for our positions to a judicial selection advisory board. This committee is most often comprised of an appointee from the Arizona Supreme Court, an appointee of our general jurisdiction court, a county bar representative, a state bar representative and three citizens of our community. These committees have their own bylaws and processes. After soliciting applications for a position, they determine who they want to interview. Before the interviews, members of the committee not only check listed references, but they also contact their contemporaries to obtain additional information. Additionally, they receive reference letters and phone calls about potential candidates.

In my jurisdiction, all of the interviews are videotaped. After the interviews are completed, the committee enters an executive session to discuss the applicants. Once they return to the public meeting, the committee members vote on the names of the interviewees to be forwarded to the mayor and council for consideration for appointment. The videos are sent to the mayor and council followed by an executive session with myself as presiding judge and the chair of the Judicial Selection Advisory Committee. Though a consensus may be obtained, a vote cannot occur until an actual posted meeting.

For reappointments, surveys are sent to the following groups of individuals who have appeared in front of the judge: prosecutors, public defenders, lawyers, witnesses (including police officers) and all court staff. As presiding judge, my surveys also are sent to all department heads and members of committees with whom I serve. Many judges who I have met through the ABA have been on this list over the years. The Judicial Selection Advisory Board has all this information at the time of the reappointment interview. Having judges who have been through this same survey process serve on the JSAB has been very beneficial. They can identify a string of negative scores that can arise from a limited scenario or limited groups of individuals.

One protection from undue political pressure for judges in our court is contained in our ordinances, which govern when a judge can be removed from office. Chapter 13-5 of the Code of the City of Glendale states: “The council may suspend or remove the presiding city judge or any city judge: (1) If the presiding city judge or city judge pleads guilty or no contest or is found guilty of a crime punishable as a felony under any law of this state or a federal law, or of any other crime that involves moral turpitude under such law; (2) If the presiding city judge or city judge has a disability that prevents the judge from performing the essential functions of the position, with or without reasonable accommodations; (3) If the presiding city judge or city judge engages in actions that constitutes willful misconduct in office, willful and persistent failure to perform the judge’s duties, habitual intemperance or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judiciary and judicial office into disrepute.”

Citizens may think of city courts as revenue-generating entities for the city. That is not our stated purpose. Our purpose is to adjudicate matters in a fair and impartial manner. Though a court may raise revenue for the city, frequently it costs more to operate a court than is received in revenue funds. Courts with more sophisticated case management systems and more electronic processes may cost less to operate than ones still relying on handwritten documents from data entry to sentencing documents. Revenue can never ethically be considered by city management in terms of the funding needs of the courts.

As support for the above stated principle, Arizona’s Administrative Office of the Courts, the administrative side of our Arizona Supreme Court, developed a question-and-answer document, the Municipal Court Governance Roles and Responsibilities. This document addresses the independence of the judiciary and appropriate interactions between city councils, judges and courts. This provides guidance for judges and city councils as it is widely distributed through the League of Cities and Towns.

Even with these processes and protections, it is still the responsibility of a presiding city court judge to be an effective communicator and educator to the mayor, city council, city management and the community. Every effective process has been borrowed from some other presiding judge. But what works in one jurisdiction may not be effective in all jurisdictions. When I was appointed, the mayor and council indicated they did not really know what occurs at the court. I realized an important aspect of my position would be that of a communicator, ensuring transparency and that there are no surprises. My role as a communicator also extends to administrating the system of authorized fees or fines. Whenever there is a change in financial sanctions, I advise the mayor, council and city management.

The court publishes a monthly executive summary containing not only statistics and revenue but also a narrative of important events or activities affecting the court. I created a process called “City Court Update.” For this program, I extend an invite to meet with the mayor and council members every month. Obviously, not all accept the invite, but throughout the year, I have contact with most council members. This gives me the opportunity to explain everything contained in the executive summary. Statistics on a sheet of paper may have no clear meaning without explanation. In these meetings, I explain the meaning of the statistics, the significance of half the revenue collected being diverted to the state for surcharges and fees, important current issues and successes of the court.

We work with city management on budget and other administrative issues impacting the court. A great advantage is being included in all of the city manager executive directors’ weekly meetings and initiatives. It allows personal contact with these individuals and the opportunity to educate others about the court while maintaining the impartiality of the judicial branch.

The most important aspect of my position is the one of education. Claiming judicial independence is not necessarily beneficial in a dialogue with the political powers. However, educating everyone about what the court can and cannot do is highly beneficial. Having city management and the mayor and council be very familiar with the court aids us on a regular basis. There is nothing better than being in a city council budget meeting and having a council member support and herald the court’s budget request based on their own personal knowledge.

Because of all the provisions outlined above, most city court judges in metropolitan cities in Arizona experience no undue political pressure concerning the setting of fines or raising revenue. We are blessed in Arizona by having a strong Supreme Court and its Administrative Office of the Courts, fostering processes which insure judicial independence.

Elizabeth R. Finn, Presiding Judge of Glendale City Court in Arizona and a judge for 38 years, is the longest-serving judge in the state. During her career, she wrote domestic violence benchbooks, rules and statutes and created multidisciplinary teams to systemically address issues. She is recognized for her passionate work in the areas of domestic violence and mental health.