The commission tasked with finding a replacement for outgoing state Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales selected seven finalists today, including Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose candidacy remains controversial.
The Commission on Appellate Court Appointments has sent the following applicants on to the next stage of the process. In the coming weeks, Governor Doug Ducey will pick one to appoint to the state's highest court.
The seven finalists are:
• Sean Brearcliffe, an Arizona Court of Appeals judge (R)
• Kent Cattani, an Arizona Court of Appeals judge (R)
• Maria Elena Cruz, an Arizona Court of Appeals judge (D)
• David Euchner of the Pima County Public Defender’s Office (L)
• Randall Howe, an Arizona Court of Appeals judge (R)
• Andrew Jacobs of Snell & Wilmer LLP (D)
• William Montgomery of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (R)
The commission's decision to recommend Montgomery comes as a blow to civil rights groups who demanded Montgomery withdraw his name from consideration and called on him to resign over his handling of sexual misconduct at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Of all the Supreme Court candidates, Montgomery was by far the most contentious, sparking protests and an outpouring of public comments sent to the commission by both critics and supporters.
Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona organized a protest outside the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, located at 301 West Jefferson Street in Phoenix. Critics say Montgomery has shown he is unable to remain impartial and would not be a good fit for a seat on the state's highest court, pointing to Montgomery's refusal to provide legal assistance to same-sex couples seeking to adopt, a decision to hire a controversial former FBI agent to conduct "Muslim threat" training, behind-the-scenes efforts to block criminal justice reform, and zealous prosecution of people who use marijuana.
The commission interviewed all nine candidates today, asking each the same eight questions. Although the previous commission asked Montgomery directly about some of the criticisms of his record as county attorney and personal bias, no one asked about that today.
After the interviews, the commissioners briefly discussed their thoughts on the candidates. Most spoke quite highly of all the candidates and lamented the fact that they couldn't send each one to Ducey. Ultimately, the decision came down to who they would remove from the list.
When it came time to put a shortlist together, Republican former State Senator Jonathan Paton spoke first and immediately said he nominated Bill Montgomery. Paton was also the one who motioned for Montgomery to make it through to interviews during the June 25 meeting where the commission picked nine of the 11 applicants to move onto the interview stage.
"Despite overwhelming public opposition, the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments pushed a divisive and unqualified candidate through the judicial vetting process," said Rubén Lucio Palomares Jr., campaign manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona's Smart Justice Campaign. "Governor Doug Ducey can choose to appoint a candidate with actual judicial experience and preserve public trust in the courts, or he can appoint a polarizing figure and send a message to other politicians that if you repeatedly disregard the civil rights of Arizona's most marginalized communities, you won't be held accountable — you'll be rewarded."
Montgomery's lack of relevant experience was a drawback for one of the commissioners, Larry Suciu, who ultimately did not vote for Montgomery to be added to the shortlist. "If you look at his application, he has handled one appellate case in his career. He listed four appellate cases he thought were the most significant of his career.
"I called the lawyers involved in all four of those cases," Suciu continued, "and all of them told me he didn't have anything to do with it ... He came to Yuma and I talked to him about that. I told him it was one of my main concerns. He said that the reason his application said what it did was because he was taking credit for all of the stuff he does in the office [in which] he contributes to discussions about briefs in some cases.
"Well, I've been doing this for 50 years and I can tell you, contributing to a brief is not the same thing as becoming an appellate lawyer. There's a lot to know about appellate law that you have to learn by experience," Suciu said. "So I'm just asking you to take his experience that we've seen and compare it with this list, and show me one person who has less experience as a jurist."
The prior commission questioned whether Montgomery could be an impartial judge and rejected his bid for John Pelander's seat in March, citing concerns over the pattern of misconduct at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and a lack of relevant professional experience.
But the commission has since been restructured, and the new members appointed by Ducey appeared more favorable to Montgomery. Some of those who voted against Montgomery after the interview process the last time around are no longer on the commission. Ducey has been criticized for politicizing the commission: Despite the fact that Arizona law requires that no more than 60 percent of members may come from the same political party, none of the commissioners are Democrats.
One of the new commissioners, Matthew Contorelli, is an independent, though he has voted in Republican primaries in the past and has been a vocal supporter of Ducey. Another independent, Kathryn Townsend, appears to have contributed to Republican candidates in the past. Both approved a motion from Republican Jonathan Paton, seconded by independent Gerald Nabours, to add Montgomery to the list of applicants to be interviewed.
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Townsend dismissed criticism of Montgomery at the meeting on Friday, saying that she believed much of the opposition to his candidacy was prompted by the fact that he's a "conservative, white, Christian, cisgendered, heterosexual male."
Townsend's remark came as the commission was discussing their reviews of the nine candidates for the Supreme Court seat. As the Arizona Mirror reported, Townsend said she had reviewed thousands of pages of documents, watched videos of news reports and legislative hearings, and read through public comment ssubmitted to the commission. Ultimately, she said, she agreed with what one of Montgomery's supporters said: Those who oppose him are only responding to a caricature of him.
In recent months, several lawmakers and advocacy groups signed a letter demanding Montgomery resign for allowing the infamous homicide prosecutor Juan Martinez to engage in a years-long pattern of sexual misconduct with little to no repercussions.
Montgomery also has been criticized for his role in blocking criminal justice reform. In April, LUCHA, a grassroots organization, held a protest outside Montgomery's office denouncing the prosecutor for his refusal to support reforms that could reduce Arizona's prison population. Earlier this month, Montgomery and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall sent Ducey a letter urging him to veto a sentencing reform bill, despite the fact that county attorneys had previously pledged to remain neutral on the bill.