Throughout Arizona, family court cases are filed in superior court. Unlike some other types of superior court cases, there are no jury trials in family court. Instead the judge resolves everything the parties cannot and those decisions can have a lasting impact on the future of your family. So who are these family court judges, how are they chosen, what can you do if you need to change the judge assigned to your case, and what happens if your judge makes a mistake?
Qualifications and Appointment
The selection process for superior court judges varies by county. Superior court judges are elected in Apache, Cochise, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Mohave, Navajo, Santa Cruz, Yavapai, and Yuma counties.
The process is different Maricopa County, Pima County, and Pinal County where a public selection committee nominates candidates from which the Governor appoints new superior court judges. Once appointed, these judges serve four-year terms before a public vote to retain or replace these judges.
Generally, judicial candidates must be:
- At least 30 years old;
- Of good moral character;
- Admitted to practice law in Arizona;
- A resident of Arizona for the five years before taking office; and
- A resident of the county where the judge will serve.
This section will focus primarily on Maricopa County where there are multiple superior court locations: Central Court Building, Northeast Regional Center, Northwest Regional Center, and Southeast Regional Center.
No matter which location you use to file, new family law cases are assigned to the superior court location closest to the filing party’s zip code or the attorney for the filing party’s zip code, if an attorney is used. A family court judge at that location is randomly assigned to each case.
People often ask if any particular court location is “better” than the others. Sometimes this question really means to ask which location has the best judges. Since parties cannot directly choose the family court judge assigned to their case, each location’s roster of judges may be relevant both in terms of temperament and familiarity with the issues specific to each case.
While judges do their best to remain impartial, they are still humans with unique personalities and life experiences that sometimes do influence how they rule on certain issues. Because Arizona law affords considerable discretion to our family court judges, outcomes of cases involving very similar facts may be quite different from judge to judge. Some judges also use unique litigation protocols that can discourage unnecessary conflict escalation and help reduce the costs of litigation.
These idiosyncrasies and other considerations such as travel time, traffic patterns, and parking options cumulatively can impact both the outcome and the cost of your case. The superior court website maintains a list of Maricopa County family court judges, their contact information, and their biographies.
Now that we discussed how family court judges are assigned, we will talk about what you can do if you want to change the judge assigned to your case. The Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure provide two ways to do this.
Under Rule 6, parties can change judge once as a matter of right. Matter of right means you are not required (or even allowed) to explain why you want to change your judge. This option is the most flexible, but it is time sensitive and must be exercised within the time limits enumerated under subsection (d). Parties representing themselves without an attorney should be aware that this right can be waived or forfeited if any of the conditions under subsection (e) occur.
Rule 6.1 allows parties to change judge for cause, as defined by A.R.S. § 12-409(B), at any time within twenty days after discovering the cause exists. Showing good cause is far more complicated. The most common reason parties want to change their judge for cause is suspected bias. Unfortunately, Arizona law presumes that judges are impartial and bias cannot be proven from courtroom conduct or rulings alone. This means you have to have evidence from outside of the courtroom to prove that your judge is biased against you. As you can imagine, this is nearly impossible. If you believe your judge is treating you unfairly, the best thing you can do is hire a well-respected family lawyer to represent you. Obviously this is not ideal, but if you do nothing and the bias results in unfavorable final orders against you, there may be no way to undo those.
Even if no party requests change of judge, the judge assigned to your case might change. This is because family court cases, especially those involving child custody, can last years and some counties periodically rotate their family court judges to other divisions of the superior court. Judge rotations are fairly frequent in Maricopa County. Several judges actually rotated this month. Here is a chart of the June rotation to see if it affects your case.