Chief Justice of the State of Arizona Supreme Court
Interview by Brett Eisele – Fall 2014
During my teenage years I attended prep school in the East and the big deal on weekends for our little group was to catch the MTA from downtown Boston out to Cambridge and walk around Harvard College in our coats and ties like we were somebody. Hallowed ground we thought and indeed it was. Our interview this issue is with a man who graduated Harvard with a Masters degree in economics and then proceeded to graduate Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School. He clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court; he clerked for Justice Joseph Sneed on the 9TH Circuit Appeals Court in San Francisco, he worked in the office of the Justice Department that argues cases before the United States Supreme Court and all this before he really began practicing law. It was a great pleasure to sit down in Chambers and visit with the Chief Justice of the State Of Arizona Supreme Court, Scott Bales. A learned man who, in his career, “has seen them come and go”! A post script here, all photographs were taken by our own Judge William J. O’Neil.
~ Brett Eisele
GC LIVING: O.K., let’s go on the record!
JUSTICE BALES: This is a little unusual; it makes me feel like I’m being deposed. (Laughs.)
GC LIVING: You’ll find there are no loaded questions here Mr. Chief Justice. Everybody knows who you are and what you do, but they don’t know anything about you and with that I ask my first question, where did life start for you?
JUSTICE BALES: I was born in Elkhart, Indiana and lived there until the summer after third grade. I then moved north into Michigan. Through high school I lived in a place that was idyllic for a kid. My family lived in a rural area where there was a lake on one side of our house and a very large woods on the other. Our parents would tell us when we left the house, “Come back at dark.” In a way it was isolated and remote, but in another way we had a lot more autonomy and independence than kids do today.
GC LIVING: You said “us”, you had siblings?
JUSTICE BALES: I did. My mother, who had been a single parent, remarried to a man who had four children from a prior marriage. I had a younger half brother and then suddenly had four stepbrothers and stepsisters, so it was a large group.
GC LIVING: What do you remember most?
JUSTICE BALES: Depending on the season, we spent a lot of time outdoors. In the summer, I had my own rowboat, then a rowboat with a tiny outboard motor, and before I had a driver’s license, I had a motorboat. We fished, we water-skied, and we hunted for things like squirrels and rabbits, but were rarely successful. In the winter, we ice skated and ice fished. I remember for Christmas one year I was really looking forward to getting a new “Spud”, which is a long metal pole with a chisel at the end that we used to chop out the hole in the ice.
GC LIVING: Were you any good at ice fishing?
JUSTICE BALES: It’s a past time that puzzles me because the amount of fish you catch relative to the time you have to spend doesn’t seem to justify sitting out in the cold.
GC LIVING: You probably had a paper route?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes and it was challenging given the seasons. Usually we would ride our bikes to deliver the papers, but in the winter sometimes the snow and the ice would make it impractical to do, so we would put the papers on sleds and we would walk the route. At the time, it seemed like a massive trek, but now when I go back it seems like it’s not a huge distance. My deliveries were after school on weekdays and on Saturday mornings.
GC LIVING: Speaking of which, what schools did you attend?
JUSTICE BALES: The elementary school I attended was Baldwin Prairie Elementary, a small school that no longer exists. This is a place in Michigan where the population today is probably less than when I lived there. After graduating from Baldwin Prairie at the end of sixth grade, I attended White Pigeon High School. When I graduated I think there were between 80 and 90 students in my graduating class.
GC LIVING: Do you have a specific teacher you remember?
JUSTICE BALES: Oh yes! I was lucky at each stage in my education because I fortuitously met teachers who encouraged me and served as models in different ways.
In high school it was Marion Thompson, an English and Humanities teacher. For part of high school, I was a somewhat indifferent student.
GC LIVING: Because you were ice fishing? (Laughs.)
JUSTICE BALES: Or something else! Ms. Thompson, for whatever reason, identified me as someone who was underachieving, and she encouraged me to do independent studies where she would give me a list of books and I would write reports about them. I think she recognized I was bored with my classes. Through her, I began focusing more on academics.
GC LIVING: She changed your life, in a sense?
JUSTICE BALES: She very much did. She helped pique my interest more in school and to develop my writing skills. It was an important and somewhat accidental part of my education. It was just one teacher taking an interest in a kid she thought ought to be doing better than he was.
GC LIVING: Now that you had improved, were you beginning to think about college?
JUSTICE BALES: I had always thought about college, partly as a result of my mother. She had grown up in a traditional farming family in northern Indiana and graduated as the valedictorian from her high school class, but her parents were adamant there was no point in her going to college, so she never did go. She always made it clear she really wanted me to go to college. I hadn’t focused on where I would go. Instead, I went where both one of my high school friends and my then-girlfriend were going – Michigan State University. I went from a high school where there were 80 or 90 people in my class, to a freshman class of 10,000 people, but I liked the size of Michigan State. And once again, I met teachers who were very encouraging. They took an interest in me. Although I had gone to this huge university, I met some people early on who helped me find good teachers in the subjects I wanted to study. There was one professor in particular, Walter Adams, who was an economics professor and just an inspiring teacher.
He was a crusty old guy from New York who would walk around with an unlit cigar. He was somewhat intimidating, because he was a little brusque and he didn’t tolerate sloppy thinking and he expected people to come prepared to class.
One of the classes he taught was on the economics of antitrust law. And that was one of the things that really prompted my main interest in law school.
GC LIVING: You obviously did well in the course?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes. I hadn’t decided what I was ultimately going to do, and he said something like, “Bales, you ought to pick a real major like economics,” so I ended up doing just that. I majored in economics. At the end of college, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to graduate school with the thought of being a professor or instead to law school. I applied and was admitted to both, but I didn’t really have any money to go to law school and I had a fellowship to study economics which was very generous.
GC LIVING: Where were you going to study economics?
JUSTICE BALES: I began graduate school at Harvard and fairly quickly concluded that I should have gone to law school. Graduate-level economics was very specialized. As soon as you began the program, people were talking about, “what are you going to write your thesis on? Have you begun your preliminary research?” It also was very oriented towards applied statistics and econometrics, or very high-level economic theory, which is essentially very advanced mathematics. I had been more interested in economics in terms of how it actually affected businesses or public policy. I thought, “This is not as interesting intellectually as what I was doing in college.” Unfortunately, though, I had given up all my law school admissions. So I went through the law school application process yet again and fortunately was admitted into Harvard so I didn’t have to move. After obtaining my Masters in economics I spent the next three years in law school and, as compared to graduate school, in all honesty, I thought law school was easy.
GC LIVING: Really?
JUSTICE BALES: I did. It might have just reflected, in terms of my skills and disposition, I was a better law student than an economics student.
GC LIVING: Allow me to back up a second and ask who or what prompted you to choose Harvard coming out of Michigan?
JUSTICE BALES: When I was deciding on graduate schools, there were some economists at Harvard doing work in areas that interested me. Also, when I visited different cities where I was thinking about possibly attending graduate school, including Chicago and New Haven, Boston seemed to be more interesting.
GC LIVING: Did the Master’s in economics help you when you entered law school?
JUSTICE BALES: I think it did. The work in the graduate program was so intense it left me better prepared for law school than I might have been if I had gone straight from college. The reading assignments, for example, in law school were much less than what I had to do as a graduate student.
GC LIVING: I find that surprising.
JUSTICE BALES: I was surprised at the time. I think some of the skills you learn in doing really rigorous economics, it’s thinking critically, it’s thinking analytically. I think they in some ways applied to legal studies too.
GC LIVING: Because of the Masters in economics, were you thinking of pursuing business law?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes. When I started law school, I thought I would end up in Washington D.C. doing some kind of law related to economic regulation or antitrust law.
GC LIVING: What happened?
JUSTICE BALES: I spent a summer working with a large Washington law firm where I enjoyed the people, had a good experience, but thought that the work was less interesting than I had expected. It’s interesting how sometimes things in the abstract seem to be something you really want to do and when you actually get there and do it, it’s not quite how you imagined it. I can remember a lawyer opening a closet stuffed full of files. He said, “This is the so and so versus FCC case. We have been working on it for seven or eight years. We might get it to an agency hearing in a couple of years.” And I thought, “That is a long time horizon.”
GC LIVING: What else did you do? You had to have a social life, I would assume? Did you hang out with law students?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes I did! We had a group of friends that played basketball and squash in the gym. We played this weird sport called razzle—dazzle football, sort of a combination of flag football and rugby. In the winter we skied. You could drive to Vermont or New Hampshire and ski for the day. I had learned to ski in Michigan, including skiing on a ski area built on top of a landfill near Detroit, and then I went out east and thought, “This is pretty nice. You have chairlifts instead of just rope tows or J—bars, and snow that actually stays on the slope for a little while.” I didn’t appreciate until later when I had come out west what skiing really was.
GC LIVING: Before we move on from Harvard, when you left Michigan and began your studies at Harvard, did the “Ivy League” thing intimidate you?
JUSTICE BALES: That’s probably another way in which going to graduate school helped me in law school. When I first got out there I was probably a little intimidated, a little starry—eyed about “You are at Harvard!” By the time I got to law school, I was confident that I could do the work. I entered law school thinking, “I’m just going to take this as it comes.” I loved law school. I did very well my first year, and that in turn led to other opportunities because I was selected for the law review.
GC LIVING: You worked on the law review?
JUSTICE BALES: For two years.
GC LIVING: Now that’s impressive! Did you graduate with honors?
JUSTICE BALES: I did. Harvard, being Harvard, uses Latin, so I was magna cum laude. After graduating, I took a job clerking for a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Having shifted from thinking I was going to go to Washington D.C., I wanted to explore other places where I might practice.
GC LIVING: Was this a result of your previous experience in Washington, where during the experience you said: “This is not really what I like”?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes. San Francisco was as far geographically from D.C. as you get in the continental United States. As a law clerk, you work on criminal and civil cases. You do legal research and writing. The judge I worked for on the 9th circuit was a very gracious man named Joseph Sneed. I worked for him in 1983/’84 and I think he had been appointed in 1973 or ‘74 by President Nixon. He was an experienced judge and another person who had a big influence on me.
I had a bit of a detour, though. The summer after I graduated, I unexpectedly had an opportunity to go to Washington D.C. and work for the United States Solicitor General. That’s the office of the Justice Department that argues cases before the Supreme Court.
A Harvard professor had been appointed as Deputy Solicitor General, and the office told him, “We sometimes hire people for summer positions, if you know people that might be interested.”
GC LIVING: What a great experience.
JUSTICE BALES: Oh, it was a wonderful experience. And here’s the thing, I think the fact I had that job helped me get the later job with Justice O’Connor [Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor] because there weren’t many people who did that. It also had another surprising connection to Arizona because the Solicitor General at that time was Rex Lee, who was born in St. Johns in northeastern Arizona. When he got out of law school he clerked for a justice on the Supreme Court, Justice White, and then came back to Arizona to begin practicing at a firm in Phoenix. And that had been his legal career until he left to go head the new law school at BYU.
I met Rex Lee over that summer, a really admirable person, a very gracious, tremendous lawyer. I told him I was thinking of moving to the west and he was very encouraging about Arizona as a place to practice law.
At Harvard, most people when they graduated went to New York, Washington D.C., or maybe Los Angeles. There were very few people thinking of smaller cities that weren’t on one of the coasts. But I was thinking about other cities that were smaller. And I somehow, just by happenstance, heard about this Phoenix firm interviewing at Harvard. The person they sent out to interview was a guy named David Victor, who had gone to Harvard College and then to the University of Virginia’s Law School, had clerked for a justice on the Supreme Court, and who had early in his career worked for one of the major New York law firms.
I thought, “Well, this is kind of interesting. Here is this person with all these extraordinary credentials, deep eastern connections, and he’s out here interviewing for this relatively small Phoenix law firm. So I think, “What the heck.”
I go talk to him and everything he’s saying is exactly what I was looking for in terms of starting practice. I wanted to go to a place where I could do challenging work as a younger lawyer, rather than waiting for a long time.
GC LIVING: So you weren’t looking for a big law firm where you would get lost?
JUSTICE BALES: No. I was more interested in the kinds of things I would do as a lawyer than the name or the size of the firm. So from this happenstance, I ultimately ended up in Phoenix. The firm that I joined was called Meyer Hendricks Victor Osborn & Maledon, and I spent the first eight or nine years of my career there.
GC LIVING: When did you clerk for Justice O’Connor?
JUSTICE BALES: I worked for her from the summer of 1984 to the summer of 1985.
GC LIVING: Was the nine years practicing law enjoyable?
JUSTICE BALES: It was. I was lucky as a young lawyer because, as I hoped, I did get to work on a lot of different kinds of cases and had a lot more responsibility than my peers who were in other cities at bigger firms.
GC LIVING: Now you’re finally practicing law!
JUSTICE BALES: I was practicing law. I did mostly business related litigation and it kind of evolved into defending lawyers or directors. After the collapse of the savings & loan industry, my firm represented lawyers or directors who had been affiliated with institutions like MeraBank or Pima Savings. At the same time, I was practicing Indian law. I represented the Hopi Tribe and the Gila River Indian Community and some private businesses on Indian law-related matters.
But even though I had found the work interesting and had been successful and had become a partner at the firm, I was a little restless. I had only worked on a handful of trials, and it seemed as the cases got more complicated and significant, it was less and less frequent you would even get to court, much less actually go to trial.
GC LIVING: Did you enjoy trial work?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes, I wanted to do more trial work, so I left the firm at the end of 1994, and then from ‘95 until the summer of 1999, I was an Assistant United States Attorney in Arizona. That was a wonderful experience too. I worked on a lot of trials, including a trial that lasted for nearly four years.
GC LIVING: Was this in federal court?
JUSTICE BALES: Yes.
GC LIVING: What did the four year case entail?
JUSTICE BALES: If I had to identify the biggest case of my career, it would be that case. It was a prosecution of a group of telemarketers that operated out of Arizona and Atlanta. Over a year and a half they identified several hundred victims. They targeted people who were in their 70s or 80s, had participated in sweepstakes, and were living alone. It was a very sophisticated scam. They called people and said, “Mary Smith, we’re calling you because you’ve never been a winner and this is your lucky day. We’re going to give you your fair share of a half a million dollars in gold coins. Now, to qualify you have to order some business insignia items because this is a promotion for our company.”
Mary Smith would of course say, “Well, I’m retired. I don’t have a business.” And the telemarketers would say something like, “That’s not a problem. What are your interests? Do you like to garden? We’ll just put you down as Mary’s Gardening, Inc., and it will be our little secret.”
“Now, all you need to do to get your fair share of $500,000 in gold is send us $5,000 by Federal Express and your prize will be there shortly.” It was amazing how many people would succumb and once they were hooked, the telemarketers would also say, “Well, you know what? We’re going to ship you out today some of your fair share of “$500,000 in gold, but you have been advanced to another level, so if you send us another $15,000, you’re going to get an even greater reward.”
There were people they would do that to, not just three or four times but a dozen times. It ranged from a retired auto worker in Tennessee who gave them her entire retirement savings, to a former State Department employee in San Francisco who gave them half a million dollars. Over18 months, the telemarketers amassed more than $10 million from their victims. We prosecuted six defendants. It was a very complicated trial.
They were convicted in the fall of 1998. I was co-trying the case with a more experienced Assistant U.S. Attorney named Peter Sexton, who is still at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We had an understanding he would work on the sentencing and I would handle the appeal. At the end of 1998, I was temporarily assigned to work at the Justice Department in Washington, and I felt we still had all this post-trial stuff to do in terms of sentencing, and I was sort of leaving that in his lap, so our deal was, I will do the appeal.
In the fall of 2001, I joined the firm of Lewis & Roca and the appeal had not yet been argued, so I went to the U.S. Attorney, and I said, “I made a commitment to follow this through, and if it’s possible I would like to be appointed as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney.” I was and I argued that case while I was at Lewis & Roca, and the Ninth Circuit ultimately affirmed all the convictions. It was a case I began working on in 1998 and continued working on for four or so years after that.
I have an award I received from Attorney General Janet Reno for work I did in the 1990s at the Justice Department, but I got a different award from her successor John Ashcroft. And it was satisfying to me that across administrations, I had done some work that —
GC LIVING: Mattered.
JUSTICE BALES: —— that mattered, yes.
GC LIVING: I would say you have had a pretty interesting career prior to your appointment on the Arizona Supreme Court?
JUSTICE BALES: I was very lucky. I had opportunities that I never expected. Sometimes they unexpectedly turned into other opportunities. As I said, when I went to the United States Solicitor General’s Office after law school, I think that helped me get a job with Justice O’Connor.
GC LIVING: Who appointed you to the Supreme Court?
JUSTICE BALES: Governor Napolitano. She and I met in 1983. She had begun working as a law clerk for Ninth Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder in Phoenix when I was clerking for Judge Sneed in San Francisco. Our judges sat together on some cases and we met then. When we each had come to Phoenix and begun practicing law, our paths crossed sometimes in cases, so we knew each other.
[Governor] Napolitano appointed me in 2005. I had the interesting experience of having represented Governor Hull and then representing Governor Napolitano. And then, as an odd coincidence, in the midst of all that I was representing a major bank in litigation in which former Governor Symington was a witness. I had the opportunity to cross—examine him. It seemed like I couldn’t get away from governors.
GC LIVING: Who had retired from the Court when you were appointed?
JUSTICE BALES: The seat I took was occupied by Charles “Bud” Jones, who had to retire because in Arizona we have a mandatory retirement at age 70 for judges. It was just one more fortuity in my career history that he left and I applied and was appointed.
GC LIVING: You have been on the court nine years?
JUSTICE BALES: Nine years in September, yes.
GC LIVING: Have any of the cases been of particular interest to you?
JUSTICE BALES: I find the cases that involve Arizona’s history interesting. Our jurisdiction is largely discretionary. People petition the court asking us to review their case and we try to identify cases which involve important issues of state law, cases in which the Court of Appeals disagrees, or cases, perhaps, that require us to reconsider our own case law. Because we choose the cases which are most worthy of review, they’re almost all interesting.
GC LIVING: To ask you two questions in closing, the first being, you were a Justice on the Arizona State Supreme Court and now you are the Chief Justice, what are the differences in your duties?
JUSTICE BALES: With regard to our handling of the cases we decide on, the differences are relatively minor. The Chief Justice has one vote just like everyone else. The Chief Justice does assign opinions when he or she is in the majority. In other matters, the Chief Justice is the spokesperson for the court. You have administrative responsibilities because our court has oversight over all the courts in the State, and we also oversee the regulation of the practice of law. The court system is also responsible for probation in Arizona. We regulate other occupations like court reporters or licensed document preparers, and the Chief Justice has a role in all of those activities.
GC LIVING: Once the tenure as Chief Justice expires, does one go back to being a Justice or does one retire?
JUSTICE BALES: That is the up to the individual Justice. Former Chief Justice Berch has continued to serve as Justice.
GC LIVING: Do you have visions for the future?
JUSTICE BALES: I’m focusing on my tenure as Chief, which is a position I’m very excited about occupying and haven’t really thought beyond that.
GC LIVING: I’ve noticed a thread through the entire discussion you never really thought about it, it just evolved. It’s been a very interesting career, hasn’t it?
JUSTICE BALES: It has. I’ve been lucky in my mentors, like the high school teacher I mentioned earlier, and I’ve been lucky in having had interesting opportunities in very different settings. It wasn’t planned on my part, but I have been lucky to have had the range of experiences that I did.
GC LIVING: So the final answer is, you’re happy?
JUSTICE BALES: It has been an amazing privilege to serve on the Supreme Court.
GC LIVING: Thank you Mr. Chief Justice.