PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey selected an appellate court judge to fill a vacancy on the Arizona Supreme Court, passing on the chance to appoint the first black Hispanic woman as a justice.
James Beene, 54, a judge on the state Court of Appeals, will replace John Pelander, who retired earlier this year. Beene earned his law degree from the University of Arizona.
With the latest appointment, Ducey has named four of the seven justices on the court, including for the two additional seats the Republican-controlled Legislature gave him to fill. And the governor will get another pick later this year with the retirement of Scott Bales, the last remaining Democrat on the court.
Beene, a Republican, was chosen over fellow Republicans Richard Gordon, a judge on the Pima County Superior Court, and appellate Judge Kent Cattani.
The appointment commission also nominated two Democrats: Maria Elena Cruz, who is also an appellate court judge, and Andrew Jacobs, an attorney in private practice.
In a prepared statement, the governor said Beene has spent his career as a “dedicated advocate for the people of Arizona,” including the state’s most vulnerable populations.
Beene has played a role in some controversial cases.
Last year he agreed to allow some new hurdles put in the path of initiative circulators to remain on the books, at least for the time being.
Beene, who wrote the opinion for the three-judge appellate court, did not dispute the contention of challengers that a 2017 statute approved by GOP lawmakers requiring strict compliance with all election laws could keep some individuals and groups from crafting their own laws and asking voters to approve them.
But Beene said the court cannot rule on the issue because no one was actually being penalized at the time — and no initiative was at risk of being thrown off the ballot — for failing to comply with the new standard, meaning the case is not yet “ripe” for a decision.
He also wrote a ruling upholding a lower-court decision that heterosexual couples who have always had the right to marry in Arizona are not entitled to the same benefits provided to gay couples who, at the time, were not entitled to wed. Beene said refusing to recognize a woman’s claim she was the domestic partner of her boyfriend was not illegal discrimination.
Beene sided with the majority in a split decision earlier this year that said a divorced woman is entitled to implant some fertilized embryos created before she was married despite the objections of her former husband, who does not want children.
But he also found himself in the minority in a ruling last year where the other two appellate judges said it was OK for a criminal defense attorney to refer to someone as the “alleged victim.”
Beene said Arizona law provides crime victims with substantive pretrial rights, including the right to be referred to as the “victim.” And he said that does not impair the right of a defendant to get a fair trial.
Ducey had to choose from five people nominated by the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.
Beene was the sole candidate to get the unanimous backing of all 12 commissioners who were present. Cattani and Cruz had 11 supporters, with eight for Jacobs and seven for Gordon.
The newest justice has a political science degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara, earning his law degree in 1991 from the UA. His career including serving in the Pinal and Maricopa county attorneys offices. He also was the chief counsel at the Residential Utility Consumer Office and later became an assistant attorney general.