AZ: Chief justice not asked about plan to expand state’s supreme court

Normally, either through constitutional provision, statutory requirement, or courtesy, legislative efforts to change the number of judges or justices in a state must receive some degree of input from the state’s supreme court, judicial council, or chief justice. A recent effort (SB 1481 of 2011) in Arizona to expand the state’s supreme court from 5 to 7 members was therefore curious in that it failed to include the chief justice in the development.

Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch, after being initially misidentified as being only a member of the state’s judicial council and not the state’s chief justice, (video here, four minutes from 1:06:30-1:10:30) said:

Actually I am the chief justice of the Supreme Court and I had hoped I was signed in in that capacity. And in that capacity, I was surprised by the bill and surprised to be surprised by the bill. Here’s a bill that proposes to change my court and no one asked me about it. Had I been asked, here’s what I might have said…

She noted that, perhaps unique among all governmental entities, the Arizona Supreme Court was current with its workload and that it would cost $1 million per year for the additional two justices.

The author later explained his bill: “I just thought that I might give the opportunity for two additional attorneys to sit on the supreme court.” The bill was ultimately rejected by the committee, but on a 3-4 vote.

This is the second effort to change the composition of state supreme courts this year. Montana considered reducing the size of its supreme court to force it into tort reform.