Judge Knot

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

"The jury is definitely still out on court unification and boosting qualifications for judges," says Doris Marie Provine, a former Syracuse University law professor and author of Judging Credentials: Non-Lawyer Judges and the Politics of Professionalism.

"Beyond the stereotypes, both sides have good arguments and neither side has any definitive proof backing up those good arguments," says Provine, who, in July, will take over as director of Arizona State University's School of Justice Studies.

What is clear, though, is that, particularly in Arizona, the debate has been badly skewed by money and politics.

Lester Pearce becomes the presiding judge of Maricopa County's Justices of the Peace in July. The former state senator will bring to the position a substantial amount of political clout.
Kevin Scanlon
Lester Pearce becomes the presiding judge of Maricopa County's Justices of the Peace in July. The former state senator will bring to the position a substantial amount of political clout.
Doris Marie Provine, who recently moved to Arizona from New York, is one of the nation's leading experts on justice court reform.
Kevin Scanlon
Doris Marie Provine, who recently moved to Arizona from New York, is one of the nation's leading experts on justice court reform.


Justice Courts are cash cows for counties. Indeed, the most aggressive anti-reform sentiment has flowed from counties most often accused of bloating local coffers with speed-trap courts doling out Draconian fines.

Five years ago, when Shultz was trying to reform the Justice Courts, Mohave County, Aldridge's home, had the state's most profitable Justice Courts.

The court in Lake Havasu generated $270,831 in local revenue while costing local taxpayers only $94,942. The court in Kingman raised $663,901 while spending only $368,093. In all, Justice Courts pumped $500,000 into Mohave County coffers.

Mohave County continues to feed its reputation as the speed-trap capital of Arizona. The county, like the Justice Courts in Mesa, does particularly well thanks to heavy boating fines. (Mesa benefits from having Canyon, Apache and Roosevelt lakes in its jurisdiction.) And in recent years, there has been even more pressure on the courts to be revenue generators. Thanks to some harebrained economic-development schemes, Mohave County presently teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.

Larry Imus, cousin of famed shockjock Don, is the presiding JP of the county. He is proud of his court's role in helping the county.

"This court collects more money than all the superior courts and municipal courts in the county combined," Imus says. "It is not our job to make money, but we do make more money for the people than anyone else."

Mohave County's notoriously large fines aren't to raise money, he says: "They are meant to send a message not to do it again."

That's the same message Mohave County JPs sent to reformers down in Phoenix.

"I think the Justice Courts are the most efficient courts in the state," Imus says. "They are fine the way they are."

And the Justice Courts aren't just cash cows, they're also Grade-A prime employment.

Justices of the peace are the highest-paid group of elected officials in Arizona. Some make as much as $85,000 if they clear enough cases (JP salaries are based on "productivity credits"). If the judge is ambitious, he or she can make another $10,000 to $15,000 in cash performing after-hours marriage ceremonies.

With marriage fees factored in, JPs can make more than the governor, who gets $95,000, and easily more than the attorney general, who pulls in $90,000 a year.

In many rural Arizona towns, the JP job is the best-paying gig in town.

Since anyone can become a JP, any elected official in Arizona can imagine themselves becoming a JP in the future.

And, often, they do become JPs. Prominent senators Tom Freestone, Lester Pearce and Polly Gertzwiller left the low-paying Legislature to become JPs in Maricopa County. Numerous other current JPs served previously as starving mayors, city council members and county supervisors.

Most don't deny they wanted a pay raise.

"I had three children to put through college," says Pearce, who takes over in July as presiding judge of Maricopa County's Justice Courts.

Freestone lived in a small trailer so he could afford to be a senator, he says.

And if an elected official hasn't been a JP, a spouse or family member might want the job. In 1998, Representative Marilyn Jarrett promoted a bill that would have allowed Maricopa County JPs to oust their presiding judge. Coincidentally, her husband was running for the post held by that presiding judge.

That year, Jarrett also pushed for several new courts -- something reformers say is badly needed. The catch, though -- Jarrett's husband also had been positioning himself to receive an appointment to one of the courts.

Like Aldridge before her, Jarrett has been a foil in the Legislature of significant Justice Court reform, her critics say.

Jarrett could not be reached for comment.

The deal is sweetened by a convenient quirk in Arizona law. Unlike most retirement systems in the nation, Arizona's Elected Officials Retirement Plan allows an official's pension to be based on his or her highest salary in elected office.

Say you serve six years in the Legislature at $15,000 a year, then serve four years as a JP at $85,000 a year. When you're done, you'll retire as though you worked 10 years at $85,000. In this scenario, you'd get $34,000 each year once you turned 62.

That's why, over the last 30 years, the position of JP has quietly been built into what amounts to a rest home for Arizona's elected officials. If requirements were stiffened, then, fewer elected officials could get into that rest home.

"Ninety-five percent of your legislators aren't lawyers," says Freestone. "So, you've got 95 percent of a group who can't see themselves becoming Superior Court judges. But you've got 100 percent of a group who can envision themselves becoming JPs."

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