In Arizona, elected county attorneys are the most powerful people in the criminal justice system. As the county’s chief prosecutor, they have the power to decide who goes to prison and for how long. As well-connected politicians, they have the power to influence laws, policies, and even judicial appointments.
Gov. Doug Ducey recently appointed former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to the Arizona Supreme Court despite his controversial history and the fact that he has no judicial experience.
In fact, a merit selection committee found Montgomery was too unqualified to make it past the vetting round the first time he applied for a Supreme Court seat.
The second time he applied, Gov. Ducey—who has called Montgomery “one of our finest” —replaced people on the merit selection committee who voted against Montgomery with people who were bound to be favorable toward him.
The appointment was disastrous for civil liberties and for maintaining impartiality on the court. Montgomery is currently under investigation after an ethics complaint claimed he allowed misconduct to flourish in his office for years. In the past, he’s used his power to deny same-sex couples help with adoption paperwork and welcomed an Islamophobic conspiracy theorist to train Arizona law enforcement officers.
Some lawmakers tried to call attention to Gov. Ducey’s apparent scheme to tilt the merit selection committee in Montgomery’s favor, but the process was largely done with little outcry from anyone other than those entrenched in Arizona politics.
This theme of secrecy continued as the process to appoint Montgomery’s replacement began.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will choose the next county attorney. We’ve been watching them closely. Here’s how it’s all played out:
1. The Board appointed a citizens committee that was not reflective of the community.
The first thing we asked of the five elected board members was for the appointment process to be a fully transparent and inclusive one.
Along with community organizations LUCHA-Mass Liberation Project and Puente Human Rights Movement, we called for the Board of Supervisors to invite people directly harmed by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to give input and feedback on what reforms are needed.
We thought the Board listened to our recommendations. It announced it would create a citizens committee to interview the applicants and make recommendations. However, it came with one important caveat: the Board didn’t actually have to listen to the committee's recommendations.
On top of that, the Board of Supervisors appointed the citizens committee members in two days— hardly enough time for people to read the news about the committee’s creation, let alone express interest if they wanted to serve on the committee.
The ACLU of Arizona, though, did ask to join this committee and did not receive so much as an email response from board members.
The citizens committee did not include one representative from any organization actively working to reduce our prison population nor one advocate whose life has been directly impacted by the overly punitive culture within the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.
Instead, the committee is comprised of powerful political players, including a sitting corporation commissioner, a former judge, the Chairperson of the Maricopa County Republican Party, and two people who’ve contributed financially to Gov. Ducey’s campaign.
2. The county attorney applicants were interviewed behind closed doors.
Despite the Board’s obvious attempts to shut community members out, the ACLU of Arizona, along with fourteen other advocacy organizations and four state lawmakers, delivered a letter of demands to the Board of Supervisors and the committee members.
Our requests were simple. We want a county attorney who will commit to reducing the prison population and challenging racism within the criminal legal system. We wanted this process to be transparent and inclusive. And lastly, we wanted a county attorney who would pledge to not seek election in 2020 so they could focus on reforming the office, not on campaigning (unfortunately, every person who applied for the job has plans to run in 2020).
The committee then voted 4-3 to conduct the interviews behind closed doors. Each person’s application is public, but we don't know what the applicants told the committee members in order to secure the recommendation. We have little information to hold the eventual appointee accountable. We also don't know if the committee members asked the applicants about any of the concerns outlined in our letter.
3. The Board of Supervisors will hand-pick an unelected person to oversee one of the top five largest prosecuting offices in the nation.
The committee submitted their recommendations to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. Within 24-48 hours, the Board will choose one of the five recommended applicants to become the next Maricopa County Attorney.
An unelected person will oversee one of the top five largest prosecuting offices in the country. This person will be better positioned to take on other candidates seeking the county attorney seat in the November election. Rather than preserving democratic principles and incorporating meaningful and diverse public feedback into the process, the Board of Supervisors rushed the process and shut the public out every step of the way.
Across the country, prosecutors' offices are notorious for operating hidden from public view. It is fitting, then, that this appointment process happened largely in the dark. But, we have the power to turn on the lights.
In the 2016 Maricopa County Attorney’s race, nearly 10 percent of voters who turned in a ballot left the county attorney position blank. Now more than ever, our votes in this race are critical.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is one of the primary drivers of our mass incarceration crisis. It is known nationally for its long history of corruption and scandal. We must educate ourselves, our friends, and our families about the importance of this elected position. We can demand a county attorney who will be transparent with the public, see it as their primary duty to safely and effectively reduce our prison population, and commit to rooting out racism within the criminal legal system.
The ACLU of Arizona does not endorse or oppose candidates for public office.