Sleeping Disorder in the Court

In John Carpenter's courtroom, justice isn't blind, it's merely napping

A jumble of "chaos" -- a narcoleptic judge, bitter staff infighting, political rivalries, an exiled constable and apparent forgery -- is creating turmoil in the courtroom of Phoenix Justice of the Peace John M. Carpenter.

The bizarre environment at East Phoenix No. 1 Justice Court has triggered at least one investigation into allegations of staff harassment and a hostile work environment.

A separate request calling for an inquiry into Carpenter's judicial fitness has been forwarded to Judge Robert Meyer, presiding judge of the county Superior Court's criminal division. The request was made last week by a public defender. Meyer declined to comment on the matter. Such an inquiry could be the first step in removing Carpenter.

A wide-awake John M. Carpenter.
Paolo Vescia
A wide-awake John M. Carpenter.

The confusion and bitterness swirling within Carpenter's courtroom is presenting a significant challenge to justice court officials seeking normalcy.

"We are trying to bring order out of chaos," says G.M. Osterfeld, the county's presiding justice of the peace.

According to interviews with court officials and county documents, problems in Carpenter's court -- which handles initial appearances, preliminary hearings, forcible detainers, small claims and traffic violations in central Phoenix -- surfaced soon after he was elected to the $70,000-a-year position last year.

Several defense attorneys began to notice that Carpenter, 49, appeared to be falling asleep on the bench.

One attorney, Christopher Dupont of the county's Office of the Legal Defender, began to closely monitor Carpenter's performance.

In one instance, Dupont sought a mistrial after Carpenter dozed off during a July 16 hearing.

". . . I have to point out for the record that Your Honor had his eyes closed about the last 15 minutes of the hearing before we took break," Dupont says, according to an official court transcript.

"I was -- " responds Carpenter before Dupont cuts him off.

"Excuse me, we heard you snore, and I saw your head bobbing up and down," Dupont tells the judge.

"I have narcolepsy and I take narcolepsy medicines," Carpenter replies. Narcolepsy is an affliction that causes people to suddenly fall asleep.

"Were you having a narcolepsy episode, Your Honor?" Dupont asks.

"I don't know. I don't think so," Carpenter responds.

Dupont isn't satisfied with Carpenter's reply.

"Okay. I'd also like to ask for a mistrial on that ground," Dupont says.

"Your motion is denied," rules Carpenter.

Moments later, transcripts show Carpenter expressing confusion over which attorney had been presenting evidence in the case. At one point, Carpenter incorrectly commends Dupont for his ability to ask questions and describe the case.

Those questions, however, were asked by Dupont's co-counsel, Jerald Moore.

"Your Honor, I'm Mr. Moore, and I've asked all the questions," Moore says. "Mr. Dupont hasn't asked any questions yet."

Presiding Justice of the Peace Osterfeld said Monday he had heard "rumors" that Carpenter was falling asleep during hearings but had not yet received an official complaint. Nevertheless, Osterfeld says he took the rumors seriously.

"We don't view it very favorably," says Osterfeld. "There is no way in the world we want judges falling asleep."

Osterfeld says he has discussed the situation with Carpenter and asked Carpenter to meet with his doctor and possibly change his medication.

"He's very amenable to that," Osterfeld says.

Osterfeld is optimistic that Carpenter can address the narcolepsy.

"John gets kind of woozy, and we are able to move him back into reality by talking to him," Osterfeld says. "From that standpoint, I think he's treatable."

Carpenter declined to return three phone calls seeking comment.

Carpenter also must contend with a rebellion by several members of his staff who objected to the behavior of the court's constable, John Powers.

"The constable would get in the clerks' faces and scream and holler at them and call them names," says Osterfeld.

Powers also allegedly made crude comments about the dress of some of the female employees, Osterfeld says.

Staff concerns were brought to Carpenter's attention, Osterfeld says, but Carpenter declined to take action against Powers.

"John has some problems with management," says Osterfeld.

Barbara Lasater, chief deputy administrator for the justice courts, eventually convinced Carpenter to schedule an unusual meeting to determine how to handle complaints about Powers' conduct.

Powers declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to county records, on the afternoon of July 8, Carpenter closed court early and convened his staff. The staff voted to forbid Powers -- an elected official whose duty requires him to deliver official court documents -- from entering nonpublic areas of the court facility.

That evening, Carpenter discussed the matter with Carlos Mendoza, who at the time was a close friend and hearing officer in Carpenter's court. The relationship has since soured.

Mendoza says in an interview that he told Carpenter he had made a mistake by banning Powers from the office. As the evening progressed, Mendoza says Carpenter drank heavily and became increasingly distraught.

At one point, Mendoza says Carpenter threatened to kill himself or resign from the court. Later, Mendoza claims, Carpenter severely beat his pet basset hound, which had slipped outside.

"He picked up the dog by the neck and started choking him," Mendoza says. "After the dog slips out of his hand, it tries to run inside and he starts slamming the door on the dog's head."

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