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A ballot question could undermine efforts to remove 2 Arizona Supreme Court justices

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Voters in Arizona who are angry that the state Supreme Court upheld a Civil War-era abortion ban are channeling that emotion into a campaign this fall. They want to use their ballots to remove two of the four justices who made that decision. But a recent move by Republicans could undermine the voters' choice, as NPR's Ben Giles reports.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: In Arizona, justices on the state Supreme Court serve six-year terms. After they're appointed by the governor, they're up for reelection by popular vote at the end of each term. But last week Republicans decided to send a question to the November ballot that would eliminate that choice, over the objections of Democrats, including Representative Analise Ortiz.

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ANALISE ORTIZ: As Arizonans, we fundamentally believed that the people, not politicians or the government, should have a say on the most powerful people in the criminal legal system, which is the justices on our courts.

GILES: During debate, Ortiz argued the proposal would effectively allow lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices, judges on the Court of Appeals and at trial courts in Arizona's largest counties.

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ORTIZ: And I think now as much as ever, the people are aware of the tremendous power and the way it can be abused.

GILES: But what truly angers Democrats is the question's retroactivity clause. Republicans crafted the measure so that, if voters approve the legislative ballot referral, it would override any decision by voters on whether to give the justices on this year's ballot - GOP appointees Clint Bolick and Kathryn King - another six-year term. Democratic Representative Charles Lucking called the proposal a nakedly partisan attempt to keep GOP-approved justices in power.

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CHARLES LUCKING: This is a political power grab by partisan politicians who want to rip choices away from the voters. The law literally states that this year's retention elections will not count.

GILES: Republican Representative Matt Gress said he supports the ballot referral, specifically because some organizations are encouraging voters to oust the two justices because of their decision regarding the Civil War-era abortion law.

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MATT GRESS: And what I fear is happening before our eyes is a radical movement to remake an independent judiciary in the eyes of one partisan belief. That could not be more dangerous to our society, to our system, than it is right now.

GILES: Democrats say the current court is far from independent.

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JUDY SCHWIEBERT: The court is already heavily politicized.

GILES: Democratic Representative Judy Schwiebert said it's former Republican governor Doug Ducey who politicized the Supreme Court in the first place. In 2016, he expanded the court from five to seven justices. Ducey wound up appointing six justices during his eight years in office, including five of the current seven on the bench, among them, Schwiebert said, Bolick.

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SCHWIEBERT: He got the job when former Governor Ducey made the political decision to pluck Bolick, who was not even a judge, from the politically hard-right Goldwater Institute and make him an Arizona Supreme Court justice.

GILES: Ousting Bolick and King would give Democratic Governor Katie Hobbs the chance to shake up the Supreme Court with her first two appointments. Ben Giles, NPR News, Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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