House wants to add 2 Arizona Supreme Court justices

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- Arizona Republicans are pushing legislation to add another two seats to the state Supreme Court, but court officials say the need just isn't there.

Rep. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said his measure will increase diversity and better represent the state's increased population. "We have grown dramatically, and yet we haven't increased the court," Petersen said.

The Arizona House gave initial approval to increase the number of Arizona Supreme Court justices from five to seven on a voice vote Thursday. House Bill 2072 now awaits a final vote.

Bill Raftery of the National Center for State Courts said Republicans across the country have led efforts to manipulate Supreme Court seats in their favor, though Democrats have tried as well. Legislation to expand court seats most often succeeds when the courts can't handle their caseloads, he said.

"It's always been `How have the case flow and the workload changed?' rather than a simple formulation of population," Raftery said.

A spokesman for the Arizona Supreme Court opposed the measure, saying justices can manage their caseloads even with population increases. "We have five justices now, and it works," said Jerry Landau, government affairs director for the Arizona Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court began in 1915, Arizona had one justice for every 43,000 people. Today, the state has one justice for every 1.3 million people. In contrast, California- the state with the most people- has one justice for every 5.5 million people.

Landau said the justices aren't just unnecessary, they're expensive. Two additional justices including staff could cost nearly $1 million a year, he said. "We think that money could be better used in Superior Court dealing with juvenile dependency cases, family court, mental health and the like," Landau said.

Peterson noted there's room in the court building for new justices. "They built the Supreme Court for seven justices," Peterson said.

Arizona's governor appoints Supreme Court justices selected from a bipartisan commission. Justices serve for six-year terms and must retire at age 70.

Former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano appointed Scott Bales, while Republican governors nominated the other four judges.

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, who voted against the measure, said Gov. Doug Ducey would probably pick conservative-leaning justices if given the opportunity.

When asked about the possibility of Republicans packing the court with like-minded judges, Petersen said: "That's total spin."

The House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 2072 along party lines before it went to the floor for initial approval.

Rep. Albert Hale, D-Ganado, voted against the bill in committee. "We shouldn't tinker with things that are working," he said.

Rep. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said improvements can always be made. "More heads are better than fewer heads, especially when it comes to interpreting laws and the constitution," he said.

A Republican lawmaker attempted to pass similar legislation in 2011, but it failed in a House committee.

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