Originally Published: December 4, 2018 8:36 p.m.
Robert Brutinel has been elected to serve a five year term as Arizona Supreme Court’s chief justice starting July 1.
The Arizona Supreme Court consists of a chief justice, a vice chief justice and five associate justices.
Brutinel, a Prescott native, started his career as a judge in Yavapai County.
After practicing law for 15 years, he applied and was appointed to the Yavapai County Superior Court in 1996. He quickly became the presiding judge for the county’s juvenile court and then became the presiding judge for the entire court in 2004.
In 2010, he was appointed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to the Arizona Supreme Court to fill a vacancy created by former Justice Michael Ryan’s retirement.
In January, Brutinel continued his ascension when elected to serve as Arizona Supreme Court’s vice chief justice in place of Justice John Pelander, who stepped down from the role knowing he would not be able to serve as chief justice for a sufficient period of time due to mandatory retirement requirements.
Being elected to vice chief set Brutinel up to naturally become the chief, a position currently held by Justice Scott Bales. Filling the role of vice chief on July 1 will be Justice Ann Scott Timmer.
BRUTINEL IN BRIEF
Brutinel, 60, started his education at Taylor Hicks Elementary School in Prescott and went on to graduate from Prescott High School in 1976. He then attended Arizona State University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Arizona for his law degree.
Though clearly successful at it, being a judge was never really a goal of his.
“I always wanted to be a lawyer,” he said.
It was only when the opportunity to become a judge availed itself that he figured he would test the waters. A Yavapai County Superior Court judge had retired in the middle of a term, creating a vacancy that the governor of the state at the time, Fife Symington, was tasked to fill via an appointment.
“It became apparent that the governor might appoint me if I was willing to apply,” Brutinel said. “I spoke with my wife about it and thought, ‘is this something I really want to do?’ I think any lawyer wonders what that job would be like, so I applied and got appointed.”
During his time as a judge in Yavapai County, the county built a new jail, courthouse and detention center.
“I miss the community,” he said. “We get up there maybe one weekend a month.”
SUPERIOR TO SUPREME
While some say “judging is judging” no matter the court, Brutinel said there are distinct differences in what a trial judge does as opposed to what a Supreme Court judge does.
“As a trial judge, you hear everything that comes in front of you,” he said. “And basically what you’re doing is managing the determination of the facts; so you have to apply the law to the facts, whether the jury decides the facts or whether it’s the judge that decides the facts.”
The Supreme Court, on the other hand, gets to choose most of their cases and the facts don’t always lead to an obvious conclusion.
“We rarely take a case in which the answer is clear, so you really need to try to figure out what the policy of the law ought to be,” he said. “In that sense, it’s a lot harder.”
As the chief justice, he will take on additional administrative responsibilities. He will also have the ability to create new initiatives for Arizona’s court system.
“I’m currently in the process of working on a five-year strategic plan for the courts to say ‘here is the direction of the courts during the time that I’m the chief,’” Brutinel said.
In that plan is a focus on expanding access to justice.
“How do we find ways to provide people with either legal services or a court system they can use without lawyers,” Brutinel said.
Other initiatives in his plan include: Improving the way courts manage and assist those in need of mental health treatment; drafting new juvenile rules and procedures; and expanding the use of technology as a service tool.
“One I find particularly interesting is online dispute resolution,” Brutinel said. “We’re already piloting that in a couple of courts.”
Overall, he’s excited to serve as the “first among equals.”
“It’s my opportunity to move the court in a positive direction, and I’m looking forward to that,” he said.
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