In a series of suspenseful tweets on Wednesday, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced that Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery will be the state Supreme Court's newest justice.
Filling the seven-member court's vacancy with Montgomery, who's been in the elected position since 2010, will undoubtedly cause angst among civil libertarians and criminal justice watchdogs.
Yet the appointment is a huge win for Ducey, who seems to have created something close to his dream court of conservatives. Ducey appointed two new members when he expanded the court from five to seven members, and now has personally appointed three others.
A Republican like the governor, Montgomery has been criticized roundly for politicizing the prosecutor's office with policies like his zealous anti-marijuana prosecutions, or telling his staff not to assist same-sex couples with adoptions. Montgomery's also drawn headlines for hiring an ex-FBI agent to give "Muslim threat" training to local authorities and for his apparent behind-the-scenes efforts to block criminal justice reform bills. Critics also blast his failure to take action against Jodi Arias prosecutor Juan Martinez, who had been the subject of numerous reports of misconduct.
On July 26, the American Civil Liberties Bureau of Arizona organized a protest outside of his Phoenix office to try to convince Ducey not to appoint Montgomery to the state's highest court. It didn't help. The same day, a panel stacked with Ducey supporters voted to make Montgomery one of seven finalists for the job.
Ducey seemed to understand the need to cushion the blow for Montgomery opponents in his tweeted announcement.
"I’m pleased to announce that I’ve made my selection to replace Chief Justice Bales on the Arizona Supreme Court," Ducey said in a tweet thread starting at about 2 p.m. "First I want to say that the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments sent me 7 quality individuals. I interviewed all of them, including those I’ve previously interviewed. As always, I went in with an open mind."
Five minutes after that, he tweeted, "I was looking for a candidate who had an understanding of the law, a well-developed judicial philosophy, appreciation for the separation of powers and a dedication to public service."
"More broadly, I was looking for an individual who wants to interpret the law – not someone who wants to write the law. That’s the job of the Legislature," he continued.
"Type faster," replied Twitter user Paddyosaurus Rex (@DrJoeStudMD). "The suspense is killing us!!!"
"Bill Montgomery is that candidate," Ducey continued. "Bill has dedicated his life to serving our state and our nation.
Ducey paid homage to Montgomery's military service, noting that he graduated from West Point and rose through the ranks in the U.S. Army.
"Bill’s record, resume & extensive list of supporters speak to his qualifications & his broad support in the community. On the Court, Bill will be a strong defender of the Constitution & the rule of law. He will serve with honor & dedication, just as he has his entire career."
"As the newest justice on the Supreme Court, I am keenly aware of the need to maintain the Court’s impartiality, integrity, and independence," Montgomery said in a statement released after 4 p.m. "Accordingly, I will not be available for comment for the foreseeable future."
As Ducey also mentioned in his tweets, the county attorney's office was in "disarray & mired in controversy" when Montgomery took office. He was first elected in 2010, replacing former County Attorney Rick Romley, who was temporarily appointed to his old position by the county Board of Supervisors after the previous county attorney, Andrew Thomas, resigned to run for state Attorney General. Thomas failed at that endeavor and was later stripped of his law license for abusing his power during his reign along with ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Voters put Montgomery in office again in 2012, then elected him a third time in 2016. His rise to the Supreme Court on Wednesday was quickly lauded by fellow conservatives.
"Congratulations to my good friend, Bill Montgomery, on being selected by Gov. @dougducey to the AZ Supreme Court," tweeted T.J. Shope, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Arizona House of Representatives, upon hearing the news. "I’ve known Bill since meeting him in Florence when he ran for AG in 2006. He has been nothing but a servant gentleman in the Army and as County Attorney. Great choice."
Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, also approved: "A key legacy of the Gov. @dougducey admin will be the outstanding jurists he has appointed to serve on Arizona’s courts. It’s critical for a state’s business environment to have a bench made up of fair minded, ethical people with keen legal minds. Bill Montgomery is such a person."
Yet while Montgomery may have made a better county attorney than Thomas, he also proved to be an ideologue on many conservative issues, inflaming Democratic voters. To many Arizonans, Ducey's choice is a political favor at best, and at worst could help lead the state Supreme Court into a more openly political future
"Let's be clear: Bill Montgomery would have never been considered for this seat if he weren't allowed to operate with unchecked power for nearly a decade as county attorney," the ACLU of Arizona responded to Ducey's announcement.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect a comment from Montgomery. Additionally, Montgomery's office sent a statement that included the following:
"In the near future, Mr. Montgomery will submit his resignation to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and transition from serving the county as an elected official to serving the state as a Justice on the Arizona Supreme Court.
"In a statement to all of the employees of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Mr. Montgomery [said], 'I’ve often said to folks leaving the Office that their departure was bittersweet. Sweet for the new opportunities they were pursuing, but bitter at losing a valued member of our team. Today, it is my own bittersweet moment. Governor Ducey has given me the honor of continuing my public service as the next Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. Over the last nine years, there have been too many moments, accomplishments, successes, and innovations for me to be able to recite them all and run the risk of leaving anything out. Let me simply say that I never had a bad day at the Office and I will miss the great men and women (and Victim Support K-9s) of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.'
"After Mr. Montgomery resigns as the elected county attorney, Chief Deputy Rachel Mitchell will assume responsibility for the office until the Board of Supervisors appoints an interim county attorney to serve the remainder of Mr. Montgomery’s term, which ends in January 2021."
New Times covered Rachel Mitchell's promotion in articles last month.
Correction: Montgomery was elected to the office in 2010, not initially appointed by the Board of Supervisors.