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Changes coming after ABC15’s (dis)Honorable investigation

After an ABC15 investigation, the state commission that investigates and disciplines judges is promising to increase transparency regarding private disciplinary actions
Posted at 1:30 PM, May 11, 2023

PHOENIX — After an ABC15 investigation, the state commission that investigates and disciplines judges is promising to increase transparency regarding private disciplinary actions and better inform the public about its work.

The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct is also asking state lawmakers for more funding to hire an extra investigator.

“They didn’t directly cite your reporting or the public exposure as the reason they were making the changes, but I do feel as though it was a motivating factor for them,” said Rep. Analise Ortiz.

She added, “I think at this point the Commission has to act because that’s what the people are demanding.”

Ortiz, who’s been exploring how to increase judicial accountability and transparency following ABC15’s (dis)Honorable investigation, has called for an audit of the commission and recently met with its executive director and voting member.

The democrat lawmaker said the commission appeared to understand the need for greater public access and laid out some initial steps it plans to take.

In an email, Commission Executive Director April Elliott confirmed the changes.

One change includes adding a new section to its website that will disclose previously private agreements where the commission would dismiss complaints if judges resigned.

“They did tell us that there have been times when they do ask a judge to resign and the case is later dismissed. This did seem very concerning. And I asked, ‘How can we be sure that that judge isn’t going to end up in another position of power where they are able to commit similar conduct?’” Ortiz said. “They essentially said that this process or this process is in the interest of justice because they are interested in getting the bad judge off the bench as quickly as possible and get somebody better in that role.

She continued, “I think it’s really concerning that this is happening with judges and we don’t know how often or why they might have been asked to step down.”

The commission operates under Arizona Supreme Court rules, which have a carve out from state public record laws.

Those rules make the following commission documents confidential: Correspondence, drafts, computer records, investigative reports, attorney work product, deliberations, and most records in dismissed cases.

In (dis)Honorable, ABC15 exposed “astonishing and horrific” misconduct in cases that were dismissed and kept hidden.

The station discovered cases in which judges left the bench under investigation, went back to work as attorneys, and the commission didn’t notify the State Bar of Arizona about the allegations against them.

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“I don’t know if this is the real solution we’re looking for. I think more accountability should happen. But greater transparency is always a good thing,” Ortiz said,

The Commission has also requested additional funds in the future budget to hire a new attorney to investigate complaints.

Currently, the Commission, which receives more than 400 complaints a year, only has one investigator. The caseload is higher than in other states, according to figures provided by the commission.

Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Bsicobing at Dave@ABC15.com.