On Tuesday, December 19, 2023, news outlet KAWC reported that an out-of-state lawyer had filed a series of complaints against more than a dozen Arizona judges. The complaints in question involved judges who presided over cases challenging the results of the 2020 and 2022 elections in Arizona.
The lawyer, Amy Martin, claimed in her complaints to the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct that it was a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct for any judge who was on the ballot in the 2020 or 2022 elections to have participated in or ruled on cases dealing with challenges to those election results. Martin argued that since the judges’ own names appeared on the same ballots being contested, they had a conflict of interest that created an appearance of partiality when making decisions about the legitimacy of the elections.
Specifically, Martin filed complaints against 16 judges from around the state who heard various cases brought by unsuccessful candidates or others seeking to overturn election results due to alleged issues with how votes were counted or certified. Some of the challenges involved claims of sabotaged voting equipment, fake ballots, or that technical issues denied some voters a chance to cast a ballot. However, none of the challenges succeeded in court.
While the conduct complaints do not demand a specific punishment for the judges, Martin wants the Commission to investigate and potentially take action. However, the Commission’s executive director, April Elliot, noted they have never received a similar complaint before and there is no precedent for judges in this situation to have recused themselves. This means the judges had no notice that declining to recuse could be seen as wrong.
Elliot said that even if no discipline is warranted for the past cases due to lack of precedence, the Commission could establish going forward that recusal would be appropriate for judges on the ballot if assigned election-related challenges. This could lead the Arizona Supreme Court to issue an advisory comment clarifying the proper conduct. Such guidance would inform judges in the 2024 election cycle about recusing themselves from similar cases in the future.
One of the targeted judges, Randall Warner, stated he had not seen Martin’s complaint specifically against him. However, he weighed in on the issue and pointed out that since Superior Court judges serve 4-year terms and half are on ballots each election cycle, requiring recusal would mean many judges would be ineligible to hear election-related cases every two years. Warner also noted this would apply to around a third of the Supreme Court justices as well.
At the heart of the conduct complaints is a provision in the judicial code requiring judges to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary. The code also says judges must avoid impropriety or its appearance.
Only time will tell if the Judicial Conduct Commission decides to take any action in these cases and potentially sets precedents for proper conduct in similar situations going forward.