By Jonathan J. Cooper
The Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery to the Arizona Supreme Court over fierce opposition from civil rights advocates and criminal justice reformers.
Mr. Ducey picked his political ally and fellow Republican from a list of seven finalists, elevating a controversial prosecutor to a role where he’ll help shape life in Arizona through the court’s interpretation of state laws, including business regulations, election rules and criminal codes.
“I was looking for a candidate who had an understanding of the law, a well-developed judicial philosophy, appreciation for the separation of powers and a dedication to public service,” Mr. Ducey stated Wednesday in a nine-tweet thread on Twitter. “More broadly, I was looking for an individual who wants to interpret the law — not someone who wants to write the law. That’s the job of the Legislature.”
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors is expected to choose a replacement to serve the rest of Mr. Montgomery's term as county attorney, which ends in January 2021. Current Chief Deputy Rachel Mitchell will assume responsibility for the office until the Board of Supervisors appoints the interim county attorney, a release states.
Mr. Montgomery is Mr. Ducey’s fifth appointment to the seven-justice court, which now consists only of Republicans. He replaces Democrat Scott Bales, who retired Aug. 1.
“Bill’s record, resume and extensive list of supporters speak to his qualifications and his broad support in the community,” Mr. Ducey said in a statement. “On the Court, Bill will be a strong defender of the Constitution and the rule of law. He will serve with honor and dedication, just as he has throughout his entire career.”
Mr. Montgomery drew fervent support from fellow Republicans, who said he has shown courage making difficult decisions as the top prosecutor in the nation’s fourth-largest county. They praised his background rising from a hardscrabble Southern California neighborhood to a West Point graduate who led soldiers in the first Iraq war.
He was elected as metro Phoenix’s top county prosecutor in 2010, succeeding a prosecutor who had teamed up with then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio to criminally investigate officials who were at odds with them in political and legal disputes. The discredited investigations later resulted in the disbarment of the prosecutor who led the investigations.
Mr. Montgomery is credited with moving beyond the divisive era. But he also drew criticism for carrying out prosecutions of Arpaio investigations of immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. He was a forceful advocate of a voter-approved law that required immigrants to be denied bail for certain offenses, before it was thrown out by the courts.
His office also handled the 2015 freeway shootings case that ended with the dismissal of charges against the only person arrested in the attacks.
Mr. Montgomery’s critics say he has been hostile to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and a barrier to efforts to reform criminal sentences, which have gained traction in other states. Mr. Montgomery and other elected prosecutors hold considerable sway over Republicans in the Arizona Legislature. The American Civil Liberties Union protested at Mr. Montgomery’s office in July, demanding he withdraw from consideration for the Supreme Court seat over criminal justice reform.
Mr. Montgomery also came under fire for his handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a prominent prosecutor in his office, who is the subject of disciplinary proceedings.
Mr. Montgomery was picked as a finalist by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, a citizen panel that interviews potential judges and forwards a short list to the governor for appointment in a system designed to limit partisanship in the judiciary. After his interview, Commissioner Larry Suciu said Mr. Montgomery lacked experience in appellate law and suggested he embellished his involvement in the handful of appellate matters cited on his application.
According to his profile on the MCAO website, Mr. Montgomery helped shape legislation designed to protect victims of crime and reform Arizona’s child welfare system, to include the creation of the Office of Child Welfare Investigations and the Department of Child Safety.
"I’ve often said to folks leaving the Office that their departure was bittersweet," Mr. Montgomery said in a statement to MCAO employees, according to a news release. "Sweet for the new opportunities they were pursuing, but bitter at losing a valued member of our team. Today, it is my own bittersweet moment.
"Over the last nine years, there have been too many moments, accomplishments, successes, and innovations for me to be able to recite them all and run the risk of leaving anything out. Let me simply say that I never had a bad day at the Office and I will miss the great men and women (and Victim Support K-9s) of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.”
Chief Deputy Rachel Mitchell has served as a prosecutor with the MCAO for more than 26 years, according to a release. She was initially a prosecutor responsible for a wide range of felony prosecutions, and then as a prosecutor in the Sex Crime Bureau.
In 2000, Ms. Mitchell was promoted to chief of the Sex Crimes Bureau, where she earned a national reputation for her experience and competence, according to the release. In 2017, she was promoted to division chief overseeing the Family Violence Bureaus, Sex Crimes Bureaus, and the Auto Theft Bureau.
Earlier this year, Ms. Mitchell was promoted to chief deputy, which the Board of Supervisors recently approved, and made her the first female chief deputy in the history of the office.
“I look forward to the future of this Office as we continue our dedication to the people of Maricopa County and work to ensure justice for all victims is at the heart of what we do every day," she stated in a release. "The legacy left behind by Bill Montgomery and the advances he has made in this Office during nearly a decade of service have helped to make MCAO a national recognized leader in criminal justice and I thank him for his tireless dedication to serving our community.”