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Weeks turned into months, but McDougall still didn't rule. Calling the judge's office became part of Stevens' morning routine, though she usually spoke to an answering machine, not a person.
"I don't have a lawyer and neither does the father," she says, "so I was winging it. I'd leave my name, number and a brief message, just like the machine told me to. I was never rude -- you never get anywhere that way. I said I just needed to know if I had to get my son's school records from California, and so forth. They never called back. Never."
Stevens again called conciliation services, asking if she had recourse. She says someone told her to file a complaint with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct.
"Yeah, right, file a complaint when I have a case in front of him," Stevens says, echoing the fears of far more seasoned Family Court attorneys. "I wasn't trying to cause problems. I just wanted him to make up his mind, so we knew what was going to happen with our child. A judge is supposed to be a judge, you know."
Suddenly, it was July, and the first day in school for Vincent -- if he was going to live in Phoenix -- was at hand. Stevens kept Vincent out of school for the first week -- "I didn't have his school records or shot records from California," she says -- and kept calling McDougall's courtroom.
Then, in mid-July, Stevens learned by coincidence that McDougall's court calendar had been shifted on June 12 to Judge Foreman. She quickly left a phone message with Foreman's judicial assistant.
"A nice lady got right back to me," Stevens says. "She told me the court computer said McDougall had signed an order on May 2 that said Vincent should live with me during the school year. But I still couldn't find the actual paperwork, which I needed to make it official, and so I had something to show the dad."
Foreman's staff did some more homework, and the judge issued a terse memorandum July 13 that revealed the findings:
"After a thorough search of the files and materials available to this court, the court can find no evidence other than the computer notation that [McDougall's order] was ever generated, or that an order approving the recommendation of conciliation services was ever made."
In other words, McDougall hadn't actually signed the seemingly routine paperwork.
Speaking generally, J.W. Brown, the Superior Court spokesperson, says the Automated Computer System (ACS) functions as an internal tracking system for court personnel. Judicial assistants are given a code that enables them to input rulings and other actions in cases before their judges.
"But the official file is the actual file itself," Brown says.
It's uncertain why Kathy Franklin -- if it was Franklin -- typed in the erroneous information about Lisa Stevens' case. But McDougall never did issue an official ruling in the Stevens case, even though he'd had the evaluator's recommendation for about 90 days when he moved to the court's Criminal Division.
If the Stevens case had been an exception, it could have been chalked up to an unfortunate glitch, an aberration. But it wasn't. McDougall's calendar became the talk of Family Court as early as mid-1999, as the costly delays affected dozens of litigants, many in the mold of Lisa Stevens.
Judge James McDougall has been on the Maricopa County Superior Court bench as a judge or commissioner since 1974. According to a court-produced biography, McDougall was instrumental in creating the court's first domestic-relations division -- now called Family Court. Later, he served as the chairman of both the Maricopa County Bar and State Bar of Arizona committees on family law.
McDougall became a judge in 1981, at which time he hired Kathy Franklin as his judicial assistant. The pair later moved to Juvenile Court, where McDougall became presiding judge for a six-year stint starting in 1989. There, he became the first judge to win the Freedom of Information Award given by the Society of Professional Journalists.
McDougall is known as a likable man with a quick legal mind, but one who has isolated himself in recent years from other judges. It's possible, says one of his peers, that McDougall didn't have a clue until too late that his flagging attention to his calendar had become a regular topic of courthouse gossip.
The best indicator of Franklin's reputation around the courthouse was her moniker: "Judge Kathy." She first earned that reputation at Juvenile Court, where McDougall was chief judge and Franklin ran the courthouse with an iron fist. She also was known for playing favorites.
"She thought she could tell anyone to do anything because her judge was The Man at Juvenile," says a sheriff's deputy once assigned to the Durango Avenue court complex. "If she liked you, she liked you, and if she didn't . . . and if you even looked at her judge the wrong way, she'd eat you alive."
That's a theme echoed by everyone contacted for this story. Says a veteran practitioner, who serves as a judge pro tem in Family Court: "I can see Kathy getting in over her head, and the judge getting in over his head with paperwork, because that can happen to anyone in DR [domestic relations] court.