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.

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske