By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
The man appointed to sit on the bench of the state’s highest court is no stranger to Gilbert.
Judge James P. Beene is a longtime town resident who was elevated April 26 to the Arizona State Supreme Court to fill a vacancy left by a retiring justice.
“Judge Beene has spent his career as a dedicated advocate for the people of Arizona, including its most vulnerable populations,” Gov. Doug Ducey said in announcing his appointment.
“He has a strong record as a public servant in all three branches of government, most recently as a trial court judge and as an appellate court judge,” Ducey added.
Ducey selected Beene, a registered Republican since 1984, from a list of five nominees. The governor has now named four of the seven justices on the court, including selections for the two additional seats the Republican-controlled Legislature gave him to fill.
And the governor will get yet another pick later this year with the retirement of Scott Bales, the last remaining Democrat on the court.
Before his ascension, Beene, 54, served on the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One. He was appointed to that position by Ducey in 2016.
But before he became a judge, Beene was a familiar face at Gilbert Town Hall.
He served on the Planning Commission from 1999 to 2005 and for two of those years he also acted as Gilbert’s Variance Hearing Officer, handling all the zoning variance cases filed with the town.
In 2000, Town Council appointed him to the Economic Development Advisory Board, which he served on until 2003, according to Beene’s 105-page application he submitted for the Supreme Court job.
Beene, who said he had wanted to be a lawyer since an early age, earned his law degree from The University of Arizona College of Law in 1991. During his time there, he was active in the Minority Law Students Association and credited the financial aid he received from the Judge Valdemar A. Cordova Scholarship for helping him fulfill his childhood dream.
Cordova was the first Mexican-American Superior Court judge in Maricopa County and the first Hispanic federal court judge in Arizona.
Beene, in his application, said his biracial heritage – his mother is Hispanic and his father is white – gave him a perspective that includes both groups.
“Tremendous strides have been made toward ending racism and ensuring equality in our community’s tribunals,” Beene wrote in his application, adding:
“However, my experience practicing law in Arizona’s courts, and now presiding in one, has exposed me to the fact that problems based on race persist. My biracial heritage has put me in a unique position to appreciate the insidious barriers still facing minorities in Arizona.”
He related how as a young prosecutor he appeared in a courtoom on a routine criminal matter, only to have the judge say to him he was glad the County Attorney’s Office had sent him rather than his co-worker who ordinarily covered his courtroom. The reason the judge gave for preferring Beene was that the other lawyer was “Mexican.”
“What the judge did not realize was that I am also Mexican,” Beene wrote. “My biracial heritage is not evident in my appearance, so this judge assumed he was safe in expressing a racial prejudice that he concealed from my more obviously Latino co-worker. I found the comment no less offensive or hurtful than it would have been to my Latino colleague.”
Beene said 15 years later as a judge, he still encountered similar “latent and offensive attitudes.”
Beene’s early career included working as a legislative analyst for the Government Reform Committee for the State Senate, serving as chief counsel for the state’s Residential Utility Consumer Office, and working as a prosecutor for the city of Peoria for 2.5 years.
He also served as the appeals chief at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, worked in the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and was on the Maricopa County Superior Court for seven years.
Beene also has volunteered countless hours with local nonprofit organizations, seeking to increase the number of foster families in Arizona, according to a release.
He has received the Champions for Children Award from the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, the Law Angel Award from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, and the Angel in Adoption Award from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
As a judge, 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.
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 pre-trial rights, including the right to be referred to as the “victim.’’ He said that does not impair the right of a defendant to get a fair trial.
GSN Managing Editor Cecilia Chan contributed to this report.