It's My Courtroom, and I'll Try Like I Want To

His daughter is a gubernatorial confidante. His appointment raised questions of cronyism. But it was Judge Ramon Alvarez's strange behavior in the courtroom that made him a target of misconduct allegations.

In the drab Cochise County office building that houses his courtroom, Judge Ramon R. Alvarez is having a discussion in chambers. Courtroom decorum is nowhere in evidence.

"Bullshit!" Alvarez yells.
"No, it's not bullshit," deputy Cochise County attorney Edward Rheinheimer replies.

"I think it is," Alvarez insists.
Back and forth, the two men argue vociferously. The dispute involves the proper procedure an attorney should use when impeaching--that is, challenging the credibility of--a witness in a criminal case.

Rheinheimer, an Army criminal lawyer before joining the Cochise County Attorney's drug-enforcement unit, is certain Alvarez is mistaken about the proper procedure for impeachment.

Rheinheimer had been questioning a defendant who is charged with drug possession about the amount of alcohol he had consumed on a certain date. The deputy county attorney wants to contrast the defendant's present and past testimony about alcohol intake; the attorney and the judge are at odds over the proper procedure for doing so.

"Judge, with all due respect, and I think the world of you, I think that what you're telling me to do is the wrong way," Rheinheimer says, according to a transcript.

Alvarez says he's not insulted by the exchange--"I'm not taking offense," he tells the prosecutor--but refuses to back down, insisting that Rheinheimer follow legal rules used in civil cases as a guide for his questioning in the criminal case.

The suggestion that he should use the rules of civil procedure in a criminal matter--something akin to playing basketball under football's rules--leaves Rheinheimer dumfounded.

"Okay, if I understand it--I hope I understand it. Give me a little leeway," Rheinheimer says as the discussion ends and the men return to the courtroom.

Rheinheimer was correct when he insisted last October that criminal rules of procedure should be followed in a criminal trial. In fact, another judge subsequently upheld Rheinheimer's position. But being right is not necessarily an advantage in the Cochise County Superior Court run by Judge Ramon Alvarez.

Last summer, Ramon Alvarez was riding high. He had learned that Governor J. Fife Symington III was set to appoint him to fill a vacancy in the ranks of Cochise County's judiciary. In fact, before his July 1995 appointment as judge, Alvarez angered many in southeast Arizona's legal community by making it clear he knew he would be given the $91,000-a-year post--weeks before the appointment became public.

Once the appointment was made, the governor came in for a barrage of criticism. Many in Cochise County legal circles, even many in the governor's own Republican party, felt Alvarez was unqualified for the position.

There was another thing, a little matter of appearances. Symington and Alvarez were close friends--close enough that the governor had spent the night in Alvarez's Douglas home. And Alvarez, appointed to serve out the term of a judge who had retired, is also the father of Annette Alvarez.

Immediately after his 1991 election, Symington had named Annette Alvarez as a $60,000-per-year international trade specialist for the state. Her subsequent bureaucratic blunders cost the state a trade office in Tokyo. She was forced to resign 13 months after her appointment in the wake of press reports that Symington campaign contributions had been used to pay off nearly $10,000 in state and federal tax bills she owed.

There are also suggestions, backed by some evidence, that Annette had been more than a gubernatorial confidante. In a 1989 letter to Symington, Annette expressed her concern over their "heightened intimacy." Made public by New Times, the letter raised questions about the state of relations between Annette and the governor. Years later, it cast a shadow over the appointment of her father as a judge.

But if appearances fueled initial doubts about the appointment, it is Ramon Alvarez's judicial demeanor that has kept him in the eye of a public storm. It is a whirlwind the judge refuses to discuss despite repeated requests for interviews.

Just a year after he was named a judge, Alvarez faces questions about his penchant for slapping lawyers with unwarranted contempt-of-court charges.

Allegations of judicial misconduct are swirling, the result of two rulings Alvarez made last winter in cases involving defendants he had previously represented in private practice.

And just a year after Symington braved a political firestorm to place him on the bench, Ramon Alvarez missed a deadline for filing petitions to seek reelection as a Cochise County Superior Court judge. In a last-gasp attempt to place his name on the ballot, Alvarez has filed a lawsuit that seeks to turn the state's election law upside down. Most observers give that suit small chance of success.

In his year on the bench, Superior Court Judge Ramon Alvarez has proved himself to be less than superior.

The events that threaten to end Ramon Alvarez's short judicial career began in earnest last fall, about six weeks after he and Rheinheimer traded profanity while arguing over the proper procedure for questioning criminal witnesses.

It was November 1995, and Rheinheimer was prosecuting a convicted drug offender charged with violating his probation. The probationer was also charged with new offenses--possession of cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia.

During a recess in the trial, Rheinheimer discussed some details of the case with two members of the county probation office who had been involved in the probationer's arrest. When trial resumed, Alvarez learned of the discussion--and became enraged.

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