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Maricopa County Democratic Party Calls to Oust Judge Over Education Tax Hike Proposal

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By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Upset with his ruling on a proposed tax hike for education, the Maricopa County Democratic Party is trying to deny Judge Christopher Coury another four-year term on the bench.

"He actively tried to stop Arizona voters from voting on the issue,'' said party spokesman Edder Diaz-Martinez. It was only after the Arizona Supreme Court stepped in and overruled the judge that the Invest in Education measure was placed on the November ballot.

But Diaz-Martinez said that does not excuse Coury.

"We are sending a message to all judges, reminding them that they do appear on the ballot at the will of the Arizona voters,'' he said.

There was no response from Coury.

The unusual campaign is taking place because there is no direct election of judges in Maricopa, Pima, Pinal and Coconino counties.

Instead of candidates seeking office, vacancies are filled by the governor. Then, every four years, the judges' names appear on the ballot on a retain-reject basis.

If a judge is rejected, the process starts all over again.

There have been only a handful of campaigns to deny retention to judges. And only three have been successful since what's been called the "merit selection process'' was set up in 1974.
But Diaz-Martinez said this campaign has support beyond the county party.

"We are going to make sure our volunteer networks and social media followers know about the effort,'' said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, one of the groups involved in getting Proposition 208 on the ballot.

Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona, said his organization also is endorsing the effort. He said that's because it is getting more involved in issues of adequate funding for education.

Diaz-Martinez said there also is support from the Arizona Education Association. But AEA President Joe Thomas said his organization has taken no official position.
"Our focus is on passing Proposition 208,'' he said.

Coury, in his 20-page August ruling, said the measure could not go on the ballot because of what he concluded were both misleading statements and full-blown omissions in the legally required 100-word description that is placed on the petitions.

Any one of these, he said, would have been enough to disqualify the initiative. And taken together, Coury said, the description creates "the substantial risk of confusion for a reasonable Arizona voter.''

And then there was what some initiative supporters considered Coury's particularly hostile concolusion that "Invest in Education circulated an opaque 'Trojan horse' of a 100-word description, concealing principal provisions of the initiative.''

Coury was overruled by the state's high court, with Chief Justice Robert Brutinel concluding that the summary "did not create a significant danger of confusion or unfairness.''
Diaz-Martinez said Coury needs to be held accountable for his original ruling. He said the judge took such a narrow view of how a 100-word description has to be crafted that it effectively would have precluded almost any initiative from making the ballot.
He said the party will do advertising to tell voters to reject Coury.

But singling out Coury will require some work on the part of voters. They face a ballot where they are being asked to retain three Supreme Court justices and 40 from Maricopa County.
When judges' terms are up they are evaluated by a special commission of other judges, attorneys and the public to determine if they meet the standards to merit them another term. All 33 commissioners concluded Coury meets those standard.

In general, judges up for retention are precluded from soliciting campaign donations. But those rules are loosened if there is an active campaign to oust them.