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2016 Arizona court expansion not seen as efficiency boost

October 31, 2020 GMT
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FILE - This May 4, 2009 file photo shows Judge Robert Brutinel, a Yavapai County Superior Court judge, who was later appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court, in Phoenix. Current and former chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court say the additional of two more justices didn't make it more efficient, one of the stated expectations stated by Gov. Doug Ducey when he signed the expansion legislation into law. In fact, the increase to seven justices from five made the state high court less efficient because it now means two more justices and their law clerks review draft opinions before they're issued, current Brutinel said. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier via AP, File)
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FILE - This May 4, 2009 file photo shows Judge Robert Brutinel, a Yavapai County Superior Court judge, who was later appointed to the Arizona Supreme Court, in Phoenix. Current and former chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court say the additional of two more justices didn't make it more efficient, one of the stated expectations stated by Gov. Doug Ducey when he signed the expansion legislation into law. In fact, the increase to seven justices from five made the state high court less efficient because it now means two more justices and their law clerks review draft opinions before they're issued, current Brutinel said. (Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier via AP, File)

PHOENIX (AP) — Current and former chief justices of the Arizona Supreme Court say the addition of two more justices didn’t make it more efficient, which was one of the expectations stated by Gov. Doug Ducey in 2016 when he signed the expansion legislation.

In fact, the increase to seven justices from five made the high court less efficient because it now means more justices and their law clerks review draft opinions before they’re issued, Chief Justice Robert Brutinel said.

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but it’s not a more efficient thing,” Brutinel, a Republican appointed to the court in 2010 by then-Gov. Jan Brewer, told the Arizona Capitol Times.

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Similarly, former Chief Justice Scott Bales, who was the the last Democrat on the court when he retired in 2019, said he still does not believe the expansion made the court more efficient, as Ducey asserted it would.

“Additional justices are not required by the court’s caseload,” Bales wrote in a 2016 letter urging Ducey to veto the bill that the Republican governor instead signed. He said it would “ensure that the court can increase efficiency, hear more cases and issue more opinions.”

Brutinel shared Bales’ assessment about the court’s capacity to handle cases.

“No question that five justices would be able to handle the workload,” Brutinel said.

The expansion was politically charged and passed on partisan lines as Democrats accused Republican lawmakers and Ducey of trying to “pack” the court.

That’s a term that came up nationally this year in connection with the U.S. Supreme Court in possible fallout from the U.S. Senate’s election-year confirmation of now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The state Supreme Court handles appeals in civil and criminal matters, death penalty appeals, fast-tracked elections appeals, attorney licensing matters, Industrial Commission appeals, and certain urgent matters that are allowed to skip the Court of Appeals. On most civil and criminal matters, the court has discretion on whether it will consider an appeal.

Regarding Ducey’s expectation that the expanded court would produce more opinions, it’s been a mixed bag. The court issued more opinions in 2017 and 2018 but fewer in 2019, a year when the justices produced the lowest number of opinions in a decade.

Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said the 2019 numbers were low because of the “high turnover” on the bench. Two current justices were appointed that year.

Brutinel said that’s possible, but did not think there was one reason why there were fewer cases and opinions in 2019.