Judge Knot

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

"They're targeting non-lawyer JPs," Carpenter says. "It's part of their campaign to make JPs be lawyers."

Over the last 30 years, Arizona's higher courts, particularly those in Maricopa County, have been the darlings of the national legal community. Arizona's Supreme Court is well respected, as are the Appellate Courts, the Superior Courts and the courts' administrative offices.

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 National Center for State Courts has delighted in raining awards on Arizona's higher courts.

"The higher courts and their administrators have been exemplary courts for quite some time," says Roger Hanson, a private judicial consultant in Virginia who worked for both the National Center for State Courts and the American Bar Association. "They've had a long history of strong judicial leadership."

Reformers say the same could be true for Justice Courts if that "strong judicial leadership" could get its hands on the JPs.

But while progressive reform of the higher courts can be done mostly from administrative shifts within, laws must be changed to substantially restructure the Justice Courts.

In the early 1970s, Sandra Day O'Connor led a charge toward major court reform in Arizona. Perhaps the most significant change: Maricopa County's Superior Court judges would no longer be elected, but would be appointed through a rigorous screening process.

At that time, the JPs saw this as the first step toward changing JPs from elected citizens into appointed lawyers.

At the same time, both JPs and constables, also elected officials who serve paperwork and eviction notices, among other things, for the Justice Courts, were arguing for better salaries.

The issue of better pay, combined with fear for their jobs, brought the JPs and constables together in what became a nearly unbeatable alliance, the Arizona Constable and Justice of the Peace Association.

The association was most powerful in rural Arizona, where the JP and constable positions carry more prestige, and where politicians are more likely to be friends or close allies.

"Out here, you see your JP or constable in the grocery store," says Carol Anderson, longtime mayor of Kingman in Mohave County. "Elected officials are more likely to be friends and neighbors."

The association, with the help of powerful lawmakers such as Don Aldridge and Lester Pearce, blocked legislation throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1994, the Supreme Court fought back. The court ruled it was illegal for justices of the peace to join with constables in a combined lobby approaching the legislature.

The association was destroyed, Pearce says.

That action would have appeared to clear the way for the five bills that came out of Shultz's 1995 commission.

Association or not, though, the old JP/legislator alliances held.

Pearce, who stepped down as a senator in 1994 to become a JP, was a key player in holding off the legislation.

"First of all, those bills weren't in line with the recommendations," he says. "That's why I fought them. I just felt they weren't in the best interest of the public.

"But yes, I worked hard to help other legislators understand what I saw. I felt I was the person others could turn to to learn about this issue."

And now, Pearce, the former senator, will be the leader of Maricopa's 23 JPs. Pearce's brother, Russell, used to be a JP. Now he represents Mesa in the Arizona House of Representatives.

"Russell has his own thoughts about issues," Pearce says. "On this issue, though, yeah, we do tend to agree about most things."

In addition, a new association is rising out of the ashes of the former constable and JP group. Pearce says the new Arizona Justice of the Peace Association is quickly gaining members -- and clout.

"We do a lot of education," he says.

Sure, some JPs may be blocking major reform because they want big salaries and cushy retirements. Sure, some legislators might block reform because they dream of big checks and cushy retirements.

Sure, some of these flurries of populist rhetoric could be just sophistry on enlightened self-interest.

But, perhaps, the anti-reformers are fighting major reform because major reform is a bad idea.

"The [salary] issue in Arizona would appear to be a problem," says Doris Provine, perhaps the nation's leading expert on Justice Court issues.

"But I also have a lot of reason to believe those folks are fighting for reasons beyond self-interest."

After attending the University of Chicago, Provine received both her law degree and a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University.

Then she became a justice of the peace in New York state. And she says she was an absolutely awful judge.

"I discovered that law school has nothing to do with being a good judge," she says. "And I discovered I was learning all the important stuff from guys who had never set foot in a law school.

"What's funny, though, is that attorneys I've talked to about this can't even imagine a person could doubt that all judges should be lawyers. Then they start rattling off their experiences with idiot non-lawyer judges. But every time, before you know it, they're actually rattling off their terrible experience with law-trained judges."

Hanson, the legal consultant, agrees:

"I don't know that qualifications have been proven to tell you anything," he says.

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