Chief Justice Ruth McGregor is fighting the legacy of a judge's transgressions two decades ago

Twenty years ago, Superior Court Judge Philip Marquardt got busted while attempting to sneak a smidgen of dope past customs officials after a Mexican vacation. That netted him a misdemeanor conviction, a $500 fine, a year's suspension from his job — and quite the scandal.

But Marquardt managed to hang onto his seat, at least temporarily. In the venerable judge's sole ballot appearance after the arrest, Maricopa County voters agreed to retain him by a 1 percent majority. It wasn't until Marquardt was busted again, this time for having weed delivered to his Phoenix home a year later, that he resigned from his post.

It's a bizarre story. (Who tries to buy pot by mail and seriously thinks he'll get away with it?) But what's even more bizarre is that, 20 years after his initial bust, Judge Marquardt has become Exhibit A in the fight to overhaul the way judges are selected in Arizona.

Ruth McGregor, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, is forced to fight the memory of a judge who lost his job 17 years ago.
Ruth McGregor, chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, is forced to fight the memory of a judge who lost his job 17 years ago.

I'm not kidding. A group of socially conservative Republicans in the Legislature have mounted a major effort to scrap the state's 30-year-old judicial-merit selection system by arguing that, back in 1988, a stoner judge managed to hang onto his seat.

Never mind that our system is widely considered a model for other states. Never mind that an overhaul could cost $17 million, at a time when everyone in the state is feeling a budget crunch. Never mind that Judge Marquardt's case is so old that he was selected for the bench before the current system was put into place.

Hey, the dude smoked pot and still got retained as judge. The system must be broken!

It's about the strangest argument I've ever heard down at the Legislature — and that's saying something.

Indeed, I sat through the committee hearing on this issue, waiting for details of a broken system, waiting for someone to provide a good example of out-of-control judges.

It never happened.

Appearing before the committee, Ruth McGregor, the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, seemed similarly befuddled.

"I think you have to have a really good reason to move away from a system that's working really well," McGregor told the legislators. "I'm in the business of evidence. And I'd have yet to see evidence, other than Judge Marquardt, that we kept a judge who should have been removed."


Fact is, the fight at the Legislature isn't really about Judge Marquardt. It simply can't be.

Even the people leading the effort to overhaul the judicial system aren't that stupid. They know you don't scrap an entire system because, two decades ago, one judge managed to fool 51 percent of the voters.

Anybody who knows anything about Arizona politics will tell you this fight is really about illegal immigration. This year, anyway.

Arizona's current merit-based selection system was put in place in 1974, based on the idea that most voters in metropolitan areas don't have the time or inclination to study up on judicial races. In small counties, judges are elected. But in Maricopa and Pima, a bipartisan committee does the work for us. The committee takes applications, sorts through résumés, and interviews applicants. Their recommendations go to the governor, who ultimately narrows the list to make appointments.

The voters' only choice is whether or not to "retain" those judges when they come up on the ballot every four years.

As evidenced by the vote on Judge Marquardt back in 1988, even that may be asking a lot. In the vast majority of cases, none of us pays the slightest attention to these retention votes, and so a judgeship often really is an appointment for life, or at least until 70, when retirement is mandated by state law.

And I don't blame us. It's hard enough keeping track of the elected officials we've got. Who has time to wade through a dozen races on top of that? Then consider that, other than Judge Marquardt, we simply haven't had many examples of flagrantly screwed-up judges. We don't have to throw the bums out because, for the most part, we aren't getting bums in the first place.

The system is working!

But still, every year, we get another attempt to scrap it.

"I came to the court of appeals in 1989," Chief Justice McGregor tells me, "and every session since, we've had some kind of bill to change it."

The legislators have claimed a change is needed because of abortion. (Once, a judge gave a minor permission to go out of state to get one — legal, but a bad move politically.) They've said it was to keep Arizona safe from gay marriage. (No judge has ever sanctioned it here, but the legislators wanted to be ready.)

This year, naturally, the issue is illegal immigration.

Representative Russell Pearce and Senator Chuck Gray, two of the biggest opponents of illegal immigrants in town, are leading the charge. Also officially in support are Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas, two increasingly unpopular pols who know that grandstanding about immigration is the only thing standing between them and electoral defeat.

All four have railed about the "activist judiciary," which this year basically means judges who refuse to strip Mexican immigrants of their constitutional rights. And they would love nothing better than a series of high-dollar judicial campaigns in which candidates vow to outdo each other on the issue of who can throw the most immigrants in the clink.

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7 comments
Johnnie
Johnnie

Yes, the issue is about illegal immigration and the liberal judges who support it. Court Commissioners would not have released illegals without the support of the Judges they report to and are supervised by. And your whining is proof positive that protecting illegals is your primary goal now. Your policy is illegals first last and always. Well, we are on to you.

Bill
Bill

We already know what it would look like here - our justice of the peace campaigns and the candidates who get elected to those posts. They are the most corrupt and incompetent group of politicians in the state. The last thing we need is to turn our state judges into this bunch of yahoos.

Nevadape
Nevadape

Arizona need only look at my State of Nevada to see what a really, really bad abomination of democracy electing judges is. I actually voted for Judge Halverson just because a cool dude in our office has the same last name.

While the Arizona system is good, Colorado is better in that ALL District and County judges are selected on the merit system. Something tells me the good folks of Mohave and Apache Counties aren't much better at electing judges than we are in Nevada........Come to think of it, Why do we elect Sheriffs and District Attorneys?

Seeking Reform
Seeking Reform

After reading your article, I'll go back to appointed judges for Maricopa but the oversight should be greater along with a strong disciplinary committee which would handle conflicts of interest. There should be a large and diverse committee in the selection process. Also the criteria for appointed judges should be analyzed -- like a lawyer who has handled "high-profile" politically motivated cases should not be allowed to use those in his application for the job since these "labeling" throws the integrity of the appointment into question. Education and credentials should matter. Periodic reviews need to be given. I believe all lawyers, judges, prosecutors should spend a minimum of a month in the county jail and state prisons as part of their training and anyone that does that would be in the best position to become a judge. They should have a well-rounded experience of the many facets of who they are sending to jails and prisons since lives are destroyed in the process. There needs to be accountability and oversight of the lawyers first, who are the ones seeking judge positions. Lawyers should be handled like those in the medical and teaching professions, who lose their jobs immediately, once charges are filed against them. The Bar protects it's own and there are many bad lawyers out there ruining lives on a daily basis -- from this group come our future judges.

AZ Mom
AZ Mom

Sarah, you've outdone yourself once again with giving us much needed information. Keep up the great work!I changed my mine about how the judges should be elected after reading your article.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

This article is very informative and a great service to the public. Thank you for reminding us about the billboards and grandstanding. We've had our fill of that with Sheriff Arapio and County AttorneyAndrew Thomas and their faces plastered everywhere at taxpayers expense. The judiciary isn't the problem, it's the elected officials with their zero tolerance mentality (intolerance) that is clogging the court system, jails and prisons that the taxpayers cannot afford. It's a numbers game with the Sheriffand the County Attorney and the true cost and harm to society must be exposed.

Jay S
Jay S

You have only to look at the booming metropolis to the North, Las Vegas, to see the problems that comes with an elected judiciary. Campaign slush funds, pressure on attorneys to donate, allegations (and actual instances) of impropriety. Just google "Judge Elizabeth Halverson" to find out the problems that come...

 
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