Judge Not

By letting cases languish, a veteran Family Court judge and his assistant created havoc in the lives of parents and children

Lisa Stevens hadn't a clue what was happening with her child-custody case.

"I just needed an answer from the judge about where my son was going to live during the new school year," says the 32-year-old single mother who lives in Phoenix.

For sure, Stevens didn't know until recently that she and her ex-husband were among many litigants left in limbo by an apathetic Family Court judge and his former judicial assistant.

Phoenix single mom Lisa Stevens found it impossible to get information about the status of her child-custody case.
Phoenix single mom Lisa Stevens found it impossible to get information about the status of her child-custody case.
Phoenix single mom Lisa Stevens found it impossible to get information about the status of her child-custody case.
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix single mom Lisa Stevens found it impossible to get information about the status of her child-custody case.

The judge, James McDougall, sent a letter of resignation to Governor Jane Hull last Friday afternoon, minutes after responding by fax to questions posed by New Times about troubles in his courtroom.

"Based upon information recently provided to me concerning the administration of cases in my division," the judge said in a public statement released Monday morning, "I have concluded that it is in the best interest of the court, myself and my fellow judges that I retire from the Superior Court bench effective August 29, 2000."

McDougall had been on the bench for 26 1/2 years, and was one of the county's senior jurists. He is eligible to collect $92,400 annually in retirement pay.

He and the judicial assistant, Kathy Franklin, had been enmeshed in a scandal that has been the talk of the county courthouse. In short, McDougall allowed dozens of cases to go unresolved, sometimes for months beyond a mandatory deadline, and Franklin may have been covering up for him.

In last Friday's written response to New Times, McDougall said in part, "I at all times believed I was in compliance with the requirements of the [deadline] statute," and said he didn't have an inkling that Franklin had been doing anything wrong.

However, Maricopa County Superior Court officials placed Franklin on paid leave June 29 after court administrator Gordon Griller personally escorted her out of the building. She was fired August 11, after working for the county since 1971 -- the last 19 years for McDougall. Franklin was paid $41,600 a year at the time of her dismissal. She did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

The allegations? Among other misdeeds, according to several well-placed courthouse sources, Franklin may have backdated official court documents to make it appear her boss was ruling on cases in a timely manner.

He wasn't, as Stevens and other litigants, attorneys and other judges had known for months.

Documents show McDougall regularly violated state law by signing his name to an affidavit before each pay period, in which he swore he had ruled on his cases within the time limit set by law. The affidavit, issued by the Arizona Supreme Court, says in part, "No cause has been submitted to me for decision which remains pending and undetermined for sixty days or more since the date of submission for decision."

McDougall was tardy -- or didn't rule at all -- within the 60-day window in at least 16 of the 100 cases reviewed by New Times, which were chosen randomly. Many of those cases involved perfunctory legal issues, where little more than the judge's signature was necessary. (If Franklin did indeed backdate court documents, McDougall's caseload was even more behind than it first appears.)

A Superior Court judge's $115,500 annual salary may be withheld entirely if he or she breaks that law. And Yuma County Judge H. Steward Bradshaw was suspended without pay for 90 days in June 1997 for late rulings, according to the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The commission concluded Bradshaw had failed "to render decisions within 60 days from the date the matters were submitted or taken under advisement, and for signing 18 salary certificates in which he falsely certified that he had no causes under advisement for more than 60 days."

Arizona Supreme Court justice James Duke Cameron wrote in a key 1983 case on the issue: "The signing of a series of false affidavits by a judge brings the integrity of the entire judicial system into question, and is prejudicial to the administration of justice." Cameron's majority opinion upheld the public censure of a Phoenix Justice of the Peace.

To be fair, McDougall and Bradshaw haven't been the only offenders of the little-known 60-day rule. New Times scanned cases for the other 15 Family Court judges and four commissioners, covering a period from January through May. Five other jurists also violated the rule, but only one other judge -- Crane McClennen -- did so more than once. McClennen was delinquent in five of 16 cases perused by New Times. He, too, signed the 60-day affidavits during the relevant time frame.

The mess in McDougall's court has left his successor, Judge John Foreman, saddled with problems. Foreman has been apologizing in court to litigants almost daily for the emotional and financial burdens caused by his predecessor's dereliction of duty. He does so without using McDougall's name, or giving specifics.

It's impossible to say how much money the delays have cost litigants in extra attorneys' fees, or how much they have cost taxpayers in added court expenses in time and paperwork.

Judges and attorneys notified supervisory court officials about McDougall's late rulings, but he continued unabashed until the end of his tenure in Family Court on June 12. Specifically, four divorce attorneys and three judges tell New Times they complained to then-presiding Family Court judge Mark Armstrong, but he apparently did nothing about the deteriorating situation.

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