Docket Science

Civil suits take back seat to criminal cases in county's full court press

If you're waiting for a civil trial in Maricopa County Superior Court, you may not get to tell it to the judge any time soon.

The courts' new presiding judge, Colin Campbell, decreed July 26 that no civil trial will be held in Superior Court while a criminal trial is waiting for a judge. Instead, civil judges will hear criminal cases.

Arizona law has always required that criminal trials take precedence over civil, but Campbell's order marks the first time in recent history that an administrator has used the statute. Campbell says the order was necessary because of a backlog of pending criminal trials created by stricter rules regarding trial extensions and courtrooms left empty by vacationing judges.

Some local civil attorneys are fuming. Phoenix lawyer Jeff Bouma says he's had a trial date scheduled for at least five months; his client, a pipefitter at Intel, claims he injured his wrist on the job and is unable to work.

A little more than a week before the trial, Bouma says, he got a call from the court telling him the trial was canceled and that he could expect it to be rescheduled for sometime in 2001. Bouma and his client lost about $3,200 in deposits paid to medical expert witnesses.

Bouma was told to expect the same result in two other cases, both involving alleged medical negligence, scheduled for trial this month.

"We've got cases involving people who are 70, 80 years old. They might not be alive in six months," Bouma says.

Judge Campbell -- whose office has not compiled statistics regarding the number of civil trials that have been affected by the order -- says he's allowed three or four civil trials to proceed in the last two weeks when judges have called and asked him to. Apparently, he didn't receive a call regarding Bouma's case.

Courts public information officer J.W. Brown explains that criminal cases are far more important than civil. "It's not somebody's liberty at stake here. It's basically monetary disputes," she says of civil matters. Further, she explains, there's a requirement that criminal cases be dispensed of within 120 days if the suspect is in custody, 150 if not detained.

Brown and Campbell don't have numbers showing how often Maricopa County Superior Court hits that goal, but Campbell says that 90 percent of all criminal cases make it to the sentencing stage within 290 days, which means the 120/150-day rule is broken quite often. Maricopa County has been under fire for years for not meeting the criminal trial deadlines.

But Bouma says Campbell's order is flawed because it doesn't account for the fact that some criminal defendants have waived the right to a speedy trial.

"The problem with this order is it doesn't distinguish between criminal cases that are cases where the defendant is in custody or out of custody. It doesn't distinguish between defendants who have, for tactical reasons, waived their right to a speedy trial. So we are going to be getting bumped in favor of some guy who doesn't want to go to trial right now."

Paul Ahler, chief deputy of the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, says the order likely won't increase his attorneys' workload because it only applies to criminal cases that are ready to go to trial. But he's not sure.

"It's too early to tell," he says. "That order just came out. I don't know what long-term impact it'll have. If we're ready to go to trial, it doesn't matter to us if the case is before a civil judge or a criminal judge."

Ahler says it's difficult to have a case on hold, waiting for a judge, particularly when a prosecutor is trying to keep track of witnesses.

Terry McGillicuddy, a civil attorney who has practiced law in Phoenix for 38 years, says the problem is that the courts are underfunded.

"What some people don't understand is that the judicial branch of government is just that, a branch of government, and it has to be sufficiently funded, or it won't work. . . . It's just a matter of coming into the 21st century. This is not a state of a million and a half people anymore."

The impact of Campbell's rule?

"As it stands right now," McGillicuddy says, "it means that my clients will have to wait in the wings to finalize the litigation that's been brought on their behalf, and some of these people are in need of money: orphans, widows and other injured people who are not going to be compensated until they have their day in court."

In addition, earlier this summer Campbell issued an order creating a five-member panel of judges that hears all requests for extensions in criminal trials. This is expected to add to the backlog.

Campbell says judges' vacation time more than underfunding and the new continuance rule has created the backlog. The week he signed the order, nine of the county's 23 criminal judges were on vacation. The order is permanent, but Campbell expects there will be little need for it, once the judges return later this month to send their kids to school.

Used to be, the county court system was small enough that judges could take their vacations whenever they wanted, without concern over backlogs. But with 26,000 criminal case filings a year, those times are gone, says Campbell, who took over as presiding judge July 1.

Wouldn't it be easier just to tell judges they can't all take vacation in August?

Campbell laughs.

"That probably wouldn't make me very popular at all."

 
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