Judge Not

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

Some complaints were specific, and others were general, but the fact that officers of the court made them shows how serious the situation had become. Attorneys gripe with the best of them, but usually draw the line at officially bad-mouthing judges.

"If I complain to the p.j. [presiding judge] about Judge A, the good-old-boy network is going to kick in, and it's going to hurt my client," says a lawyer, who says that she, too, complained to Judge Armstrong about McDougall. "Family Court judges have tremendous latitude in making decisions, more so in some ways than in the other courts."

That attorney, and others, agreed to speak with New Times only if promised anonymity for fear of that kind of retribution.

James McDougall was one of Maricopa County's senior Superior Court judges.
James McDougall was one of Maricopa County's senior Superior Court judges.
Kathy Franklin worked for Judge McDougall for nearly two decades.
Kathy Franklin worked for Judge McDougall for nearly two decades.

Bob Schwartz, a highly regarded Phoenix divorce attorney, is one of few barristers contacted for this story willing to speak for attribution. "I've always had great respect for Judge McDougall's legal opinions, even when they haven't been in my clients' favor," he says. "But what we could never figure out is why they took him so long, if he got them done at all."

In keeping with the circle-the-wagons mentality among the court's upper echelon on this matter, Armstrong -- now the Superior Court's associate presiding judge -- declined to comment about any aspect of this story. And Judge Foreman changed his mind overnight last week about discussing the issue, after saying he didn't know how his supervisory colleagues let things fester for so long in McDougall's courtroom.

"I just can't talk about this," Foreman said.

In his response to New Times, McDougall conceded that "on occasion, I have had discussions with presiding judicial officers concerning the administration of cases in my court, including the issue of timeliness."

One of those judges surely was Robert Myers, the county's former presiding judge, and the man who appointed Armstrong to head Family Court. Myers also said he could not comment about the McDougall affair.

When asked why, the usually blunt Myers -- who as chief judge pushed Superior Court into becoming a more user-friendly and open place -- repeated, "I cannot talk about this."

Judge Foreman referred further questions to Family Court administrator Carla Boatner, saying Boatner could provide valuable information about the McDougall situation. Boatner later seemed surprised to get a visit from a reporter, and referred inquiries to the court's director of communications, J.W. Brown. Brown provided Franklin and McDougall's salaries, Franklin's dates of employment, and information about certain court procedures.

The morass at Family Court was news to Lisa Stevens, a divorced mother of a 13-year-old boy. About all she knew until recently was that Judge McDougall never did rule on her child-custody dispute with her ex-husband -- even though it had been sitting unresolved on his desk for more than 90 days.

Stevens also knew that McDougall's staff hadn't responded during that three-month stretch to her incessant telephone reminders that she and her ex-husband Phillip desperately needed an answer.

Stevens had been wrangling with her ex over where their child, Vincent, should live during the school year. Phillip Stevens is stationed at a naval base in San Diego. Lisa Stevens works as an attendance clerk for a Valley school district.

Phillip wanted the boy to live with his current wife while he's deployed on a six-month mission; Lisa wanted Vincent to stay with her in Arizona. The argument heated up in February, but there seemed to be time to sort things out.

If Judge McDougall ruled in Lisa Stevens' favor, Vincent would enroll in a year-round Phoenix school in July. In that case, the boy would live until then with his father. If the judge ruled in Phillip Stevens' favor, the boy would enroll in San Diego starting in late August, and would spend most of his time before then with his mother.

Records show the ex-spouses spoke last February 11 to an evaluator for the court's conciliation services unit. The evaluator's mission was to make a recommendation to Judge McDougall. She did so in March, suggesting the child would be better situated with a natural parent, the mother.

But neither father nor mother would know that for months, as they awaited McDougall's decision. Meanwhile, Vincent continued to stay with his mother in Phoenix, something that Lisa Stevens says turned out to be unfair to her ex-husband.

"If we had known that the court was siding with me, Vincent would have gotten to spend more time with his dad before school started," she says. "We may be fighting about some things, but what's right is right."

In March, Stevens phoned conciliation services for information. The evaluator told her she couldn't reveal the unit's recommendation, because the judge had the report on his desk.

She soon called McDougall's office for the first of what she estimates was about 100 attempts at getting an answer about her son's status.

"One day early on, I got through to a woman who was rude and obnoxious with me," says Stevens, adding that she talks with parents of students every day, and knows her phone manners. "She told me that the judge would make his ruling when he made his ruling. I said okay."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets