Mind Your JPs and Qs

Six-figure campaigns, questionable addresses and church politics cloud justice court races

Candidates for justice of the peace like to say their courtrooms are truly "the people's courts" in Arizona. But even Judge Judy might be appalled at the judicial shenanigans in Maricopa County as the September 8 primary election nears.

In Scottsdale, one candidate has dumped more than $140,000 of his own money into his campaign treasury. That's unheard of in a JP race; that particular job only pays about $70,000 a year. Meanwhile, Scottsdale police have gotten complaints of vandalism to campaign signs.

In Tempe, the Attorney General's Office has asked the court to remove one contender for JP and one for constable from the ballot for falsifying their residence addresses. They both gave the same address--a condo within the justice court boundaries--but have never lived there, according to an AG investigator.

And in Mesa, an incumbent who's also the county's presiding JP is under fire for mixing church and state. He's an official with the Mormon Church and a couple years ago excommunicated a church member. This year, he ruled against the guy's wife in a judicial proceeding. He's also been targeted by fellow JPs who don't like the way he runs the justice court system and are making sure the story of his potential conflict is being circulated this election season.

Most people have no idea who their justice of the peace is. Yet Justice Court is the place most people come into contact with the court system.

JPs handle civil cases up to $5,000 and small-claims disputes up to $2,500. They rule on most traffic offenses, incuding DUIs, and misdemeanor criminal cases where fines could reach $750 and jail time up to 180 days. They preside over felony arraignments.

There are 22 JPs in Maricopa County with jurisdiction divvied up by specific justice precincts. Come January, when the new West Tempe JP takes office, there will be 23.

Qualifications: You must be at least 18 years old and live within the boundaries of the justice precinct. You don't have to be an attorney or have any formal education or legal training.

JPs are elected to four-year terms and are paid according to the number of cases the court handles; the busiest JPs make about $73,000 a year.

It's a good gig if you can get it. And some people are going to great lengths to get it. To wit:

* Mark Dobronski is challenging Judge Robert Melton for the Scottsdale JP post. Melton has held the position since 1991.

Melton is an attorney; Dobronski is a former administrator for the state Department of Corrections. Both are Republicans, although Dobronski ran for sheriff in 1988 as a Democrat. They are the only two candidates for the seat, so the race will be decided in next week's primary.

Last week, Dobronski notified Melton and election officials that he had contributed $141,046 of his own money to his campaign. That's a hefty chunk of campaign cash by JP standards--where $20,000 campaigns raise eyebrows.

"I'm spending my own money because I believe in what I can do here," says Dobronski, who scolds Melton for raising money the old-fashioned way--from constituents, including attorneys and people who may eventually have business before his court.

Melton calls Dobronski's campaign wad "excessive and obscene." Melton says he'll probably end up spending $30,000, up from about $20,000 he spent to retain the seat in 1994.

So far, according to campaign finance disclosure statements filed last week with the county elections office, much of Melton's money has gone for the usual local campaign expenses--brochures, mailings and political signs.

Dobronski didn't file his report by the required deadline, so it's unknown what he's splurged on other than his large brown-and-yellow signs posted everywhere in Scottsdale and northeast Phoenix.

Those signs have been a source of contention. Dobronski has called the cops several times to say he suspects Melton or his supporters have vandalized or ripped down placards. One incident last month made the front page of the Arizona Republic: Dobronski says he spied Melton himself taking down a Dobronski sign. Melton says he was fixing one of his own signs. The dispute ended with Melton and Dobronski shaking hands and getting together for a cup of coffee.

The chat, however, did little to mend fences. A few days later, on August 18, Dobronski again called police to say he saw a Melton supporter replacing a Dobronski sign with a Melton sign. Now, Dobronski is telling people that a paid Melton staffer was caught red-handed by police in the act of ripping down his signs.

Not so. The alleged sign-tamperer, Kent Pafford, works for the Summit Group, the political consultants that Melton is paying to erect and maintain his signs. And it was Dobronski, not the police, who witnessed the tampering.

Two patrol officers found the suspect in a small pickup that carried a bunch of Melton signs in the back. Dobronski and a friend of his were called to the station for a photo lineup, according to police reports of the incident.

The case has been turned over to the city prosecutor for review, but Scottsdale police spokesman Sergeant Doug Dirren says Pafford could be charged with "tampering with political signs," a misdemeanor.

* The Tempe Justice Court has gotten so busy that state officials decided to split it into two precincts, the existing East Tempe court and the new West Tempe court.

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