Judge Knot

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

"It's pretty easy to do the math," Holohan says.

Over the last 30 years the power of the JPs has grown accordingly.

Which has created the strangest of political alliances, alliances that the authors of The Federalist Papers certainly didn't envision. In effect, Arizona's legislative branch is allied with the bottom rung of the judiciary in opposition to the upper echelons of the judiciary.

JP Tom Freestone has served as everything from constable to county supervisor to state senator. He is a strong proponent of the idea that life experience and integrity, not a college or law school degree, determine the quality of a justice of the peace.
Kevin Scanlon
JP Tom Freestone has served as everything from constable to county supervisor to state senator. He is a strong proponent of the idea that life experience and integrity, not a college or law school degree, determine the quality of a justice of the peace.

It is elected officials versus appointed judges. It is non-lawyers versus lawyers.

It is along these populist lines that the rhetorical battles of reform are fought.

In other words, everybody busts out their lawyers jokes.

And for 30 years, those jokes and the weight they carry have driven Arizona's top judges absolutely crazy.

Justice of the Peace Ronald Borane was arrested in 1999 on charges of fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering. The Cochise County JP was helping his buddy, Francisco Rafael Camarena, a notorious Mexican drug trafficker. Borane pleaded guilty to two felony charges last year.

Three months earlier, J. Brian Lamb, a Chandler JP, was arrested on 37 counts of fraud, money-laundering and conspiracy for his part in selling bogus insurance policies to truck drivers. He pleaded guilty to federal charges in June 2000.

John M. Carpenter was removed last year from his JP post in east Phoenix. Among other allegations, he was accused of sexually harassing employees, and falling asleep during trials and then using methamphetamines to stay awake. Carpenter says he was wrongly targeted by Superior and Supreme Court officials who want to discredit non-attorney JPs.

Mark Dobronski, the Scottsdale JP, has been assigned to "non-judicial duties" as state court officials investigate 41 charges of misconduct against him. Dobronski is primarily accused of bullying litigants and staffers. Dobronski's attorney says he is confident Dobronski will be vindicated.

Joe Guzman of Tolleson pleaded no contest to charges of disorderly conduct and criminal damage for vandalizing a car.

Maryvale JP Andy Gastelum is accused of ordering a court security guard to rough up Maryvale constable Frank Canez who had supported a different candidate for the JP post. Gastelum had issued an administrative order barring Canez from clerical areas of the courthouse, areas Canez had had access to for four years.

Maryvale's chief clerk is presently on paid administrative leave as officials investigate numerous allegations of misconduct. Gastelum still runs his court.

Since the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct was formed in 1970, 41 judges have been punished. Twenty-five of those 41 judges have been justices of the peace.

In 1994, Holohan, the former chief justice, led a system review of Maricopa County's 21 Justice Courts (there are now 23). Holohan found numerous problems, including:

• Judges falsifying caseload records to increase their pay, which is based on the number of cases handled by their court.

• Judges not being available to issue search warrants.

• Judges forcing staff to take part in political campaigning.

• Judges putting off cases so they could perform weddings. Many judges charge to perform ceremonies.

• Judges assigning judicial duties to non-judicial staff.

He found that some courts had severe case backlogs. In one court, thousands of tickets were found stashed in boxes; the statute of limitations had passed on many. Many courts weren't meeting minimum accounting standards and some courts just weren't open very often.

All told, his study identified 14 areas of severe problems. His team made 20 recommendations for reform.

Some of the recommendations led to change. Most didn't.

"Many of those problems remain to this day," Holohan says. "That's the nature of this beast."

One change during that time: The Supreme Court, by administrative order, placed the Justice Courts under the supervision of each county's presiding Superior Court judge. In Maricopa County, that honor went to Judge Robert Myers when he became presiding judge in 1995.

"From that point on," Myers says, "the JPs continuously and vociferously wanted that order abolished by me."

The Superior Court is still the JPs top boss. But the JPs still get to elect one of their own to oversee administrative functions and speak for the group. In July, that will be Pearce.

Myers says he also spent the next five years finding out how badly Arizona needs major lower-court reform.

"Every time you have a JP scandalized, it makes the whole bench look bad," Myers says. "Obviously, we've had lots of opportunities to look bad in recent years."

JPs argue, though, that the Justice Courts are already changing for the better. They are becoming more efficient and accountable, not by sweeping state fiats, but by incremental steps from within the system.

"You are always going to have some bad eggs," Pearce says. "And the systems are already in place to get rid of those bad eggs."

The fact that most court-related complaints in Arizona emanate from the limited-jurisdiction courts, is because "we see 10 times more people," Pearce says.

"And most of the time, it's just you speaking directly with the person without an attorney in between. It's a tough, emotional moment that is repeated over and over each day. It's just apples and oranges comparing our courts to Superior Courts."

John Carpenter, the JP punished for sleeping on the bench, sees a more sinister twist to the apparent glut of sanctioned JPs.

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