Judge Knot

JP posse sticks to its guns in decades-long battle to clean up it judicial corral

As one of Arizona's most influential lobbyists and business leaders, Marty Shultz isn't accustomed to getting his political butt kicked.

In 1995, Shultz was asked by Arizona's Supreme Court justices to lead a high-powered commission to reform Arizona's limited-jurisdiction courts, the bottom tier of Arizona's judicial pyramid where more than 90 percent of Arizona's legal disputes are settled.

The commission was presented with extensive evidence of graft and waste in the state's lower courts, particularly in Arizona's 83 Justice Courts, where elected justices of the peace handle everything from traffic fines and apartment evictions to felony preliminary hearings.

During his tenure as Maricopa County's  presiding Superior Court judge, Robert Myers was often at odds with the Justices of the Peace he oversaw.
During his tenure as Maricopa County's presiding Superior Court judge, Robert Myers was often at odds with the Justices of the Peace he oversaw.
During his tenure as Maricopa County's  presiding Superior Court judge, Robert Myers was often at odds with the Justices of the Peace he oversaw.
During his tenure as Maricopa County's presiding Superior Court judge, Robert Myers was often at odds with the Justices of the Peace he oversaw.

The Justice Courts had remained virtually the same since real bullets were used in Tombstone. And by 1995, 700,000 court cases were being handled each year by judges who met less stringent mental competency standards than those for people facing the death penalty in Arizona.

The courts were found to be inefficient, understaffed, unsafe and varying wildly in the quality of justice depending on the personalities, prejudices and work ethics of the judges and the court clerks.

Commission members spent thousands of hours researching and creating an extensive plan for reform. Consensus was built, strings were pulled, debts were called in.

Five reform bills were brought before the Legislature, including a bill to raise requirements for people running for justice of the peace. With all that power and justice behind reform, it looked like a political slam dunk.

Instead, it was a political slaughter. And Shultz and his bloodied band of influential do-gooders found out where the real power lies in Arizona.

"The JPs have it," says Shultz, vice president and chief lobbyist for the Fortune 500 company Pinnacle West Capital, the parent company of Arizona Public Service.

"Everything seemed to be going well," Shultz says of the failed campaign. "Then I got the call."

It was Don Aldridge, then speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. Aldridge told Shultz that the justice of the peace in his district in Mohave County, David Babbitt, cousin of former Arizona governor and then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, didn't like the bills.

"So Don tells me he's holding them up," Shultz says. "And, poof, all that work by this long line of incredible people was dead once again."

The "once again" refers to past reform attempts. Since 1951, there have been at least 10 major attempts to overhaul Arizona's Justice Courts.

Mo Udall tried it. Sandra Day O'Connor tried it. Chief justices Frank X. Gordon, William Holohan and Stanley Feldman tried it. Even popular Democratic businessman Eddie Basha gave it a shot.

And for the most part, all were summarily dispatched by Arizona's JPs.

"It's a pretty good group of people who have been beaten badly by the JPs," says former Arizona chief justice Holohan. "People don't realize it, but they have quietly been a very powerful group for a long time. They will fight like hell if you mess with their livelihood."

Nationally, as in Arizona, the debate on lower-court reform has raged for more than three decades. For the most part, the fight in Arizona has mirrored the national fight.

In general, the battle lines form along the issue of statewide court unification.

Reformers ultimately want all courts in the state -- from municipal and justice courts up -- to be state courts. Justice courts and municipal courts would, in essence, become satellite state courts -- sort of like local post offices.

Reformers also want higher qualifications for lower-court judges. Presently to be a justice of the peace in Arizona, you must be 18 years old, a registered voter and be able to read English.

Most recently, reformers suggested that judges need a bachelor's degree, to be at least 30 years old, have no past felony convictions, be of good moral character and pass a minimum-competency test before becoming a judge.

Others believe JPs should have a law degree. It is this point, above all others, that stirs the most passion in debate. (Today's reformers aren't actively pushing for a law degree; the effort is aimed more at boosting JP qualifications.)

Law degree or not, the reforms that are being advocated would mean the JP job would be unattainable for many of the current JPs.

"Nothing gets people fired up like being out there fighting for your job," Holohan says.

On the reform side, you have Arizona's professional elite. Although zero for 10 in the battle for reform, they claim the upcoming redrawing of political boundaries in Arizona will bring power to an urban electorate that wants a more professional, streamlined, centralized, computerized and accountable lower-court system run entirely by the state. Major reform is inevitable, they believe.

On the other side, you have Arizona's JPs and most elected officials, who say Arizonans want autonomous, community-based courts run by fellow citizens from all walks of life who know and love their communities.

To a large degree, it is a battle between lawyers and non-lawyers. It's a debate easily tainted by populist demagoguery or professional snobbery. Non-lawyers label major reform as a "lawyer full-employment act." Lawyers say, basically, that it makes sense that a person dispensing justice has some training in the law.

Muddling the issue, say national legal experts, is the fact that there is no definitive proof supporting either side of the reform argument.

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