After about 14 years on the Pima County Superior Court bench, Judge Carmine Cornelio is retiring at the end of the year, a decision he said was based partly on the negative results of a judicial-performance review.
He made the decision after the Arizona Commission on Judicial Performance Review issued a 27-4 vote in June holding that Cornelio “does not meet” state judicial standards, meaning he should not be retained by voters in November.
The commission has only made six such recommendations since 2006, according to records provided by the Arizona Supreme Court. Cornelio’s vote, which he said left him “a little shocked,” was also one of the strongest non-retention recommendations the commission has made over the last decade.
The 16 other Pima County Superior Court judges up for retention votes on the November ballot were deemed to meet state standards, most with unanimous or near-unanimous votes.
In Pinal, Maricopa and Pima counties, Superior Court judges are appointed through the voter-approved merit-selection process rather than being elected, but are subject to up-or-down retention votes every four years.
Cornelio’s name will not appear on the November ballot, since he has decided to retire.
Cornelio told the Star the vote was one of many factors in his decision to leave the bench, which was also influenced by family, health and professional considerations. He said he intends to go into private practice in alternative dispute resolution after retiring on Dec. 31, as well as spend more time with his growing number of grandchildren. To replace him, a judicial appointment commission will review candidates and submit at least three to the Governor’s Office for final approval, as per the merit process.
While the most recent vote was a resounding recommendation to voters to not retain him, both of Cornelio’s other public performance reviews since 2008 were overwhelmingly positive. Twice commissioners voted 28-1 recommending that voters retain him. Results from surveys sent out to judges, attorneys and litigants in 2008, which are considered by the commission before voting, show that nearly all respondents found his performance to be at least “satisfactory” and up to “superior.”
Cornelio said his survey results since then have largely “been above bench averages.” Cornelio conceded there were “a couple areas where I’m lower than I should be” in the most recent round of surveys, but said they were not “overwhelmingly negative.”
The survey breakdown for the most recent vote, which Cornelio provided at the request of the Star, shows that attorneys, litigants and staff evaluated him more negatively than Pima County judges as a whole. Jurors, however, viewed him more favorably, on average.
Where Cornelio fared worst was in the “judicial temperament” section, where his average score among attorneys was a little over an average score of 2, which is deemed “poor.” Thirty-three percent of attorney respondents gave him a score of either unacceptable or poor, which triggers additional scrutiny from the judicial-review commission. However, none of his average scores in any category fell below an average of two.
Written comments from survey respondents were a combination of high praise and trenchant criticism. Several described the judge as “fair” and “excellent,” while others took issue with his “inappropriate comments” and “unpredictable and mercurial” reasoning and personality. One attorney said he was “not very familiar with criminal law” while another applauded his “true gift” for settlement conferences.
The judge had several ideas about why things did not go well this time around, including the fact that he was on a criminal bench rotation during the period evaluated, while most of his experience and interest are on the civil side and that he didn’t go in person to speak with the commission about those surveys before the vote. He said he opted to write a letter to the commission instead.
“Obviously with some hindsight, I wish I had gone up to have a discussion with them about the numbers and their process and some of the problem with their process,” he said. “And some of the problems I first had when I rotated to the criminal (bench).”
During his time as a judge, Cornelio has also received several public sanctions from the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct for his behavior in and out of the courtroom, most recently in 2013. The latter case stemmed from two separate complaints about Cornelio’s behavior during settlement conferences, which the resolution notes are often more informal and governed by fewer rules than other court proceedings. In both cases, Cornelio conceded that some of his statements were “inappropriate.”
However, two of these sanctions preceded votes in which the commission found that Cornelio “does meet” judicial standards.
Cornelio said he doesn’t know if those sanctions played a part in the most recent vote, but said they were “certainly something that they had available.”
A non-retention recommendation from the commission does not spell the end of a judge’s career. In 2014, for example, that same commission voted 23-6 against Pima County Superior Court Judge Catherine Woods, who was then retained in the general election with the support of 59 percent of voters.
“If I had gotten this vote a number of years before, I clearly would have decided to stand for retention,” he said. “And I’m confident, given the history in Pima County, that I would have been retained.”