Injustice System

A Phoenix Municipal Court judge quits — and, finally, the truth comes out

This month, Phoenix Municipal Court Judge Karyn Klausner did something that no one in her position had done for decades.

She quit.

Didn't retire. Didn't get pushed out by the city council, and didn't leave for an appointment to another court.

Karyn Klausner and Michael Carroll met as judges. Now, both are off the bench.
Tony Blei
Karyn Klausner and Michael Carroll met as judges. Now, both are off the bench.

Nope, Klausner just decided to walk. And with that decision, the 45-year-old left a job that pays $140,000 a year, plus benefits. A job that rarely requires even a 40-hour week. A job, she tells me, that she loved.

You hear something like that, and you might think Karyn Klausner is a little bit crazy. But after I sat down with Klausner for coffee last week, I had an entirely different opinion.

Fact is, Superior Court, with its juicy murder trials, gets all the ink. But most of us are far more likely to end up in municipal court. It's court for screw-ups: drunken drivers, shoplifters, bar brawlers.

If your kid gets charged with underage drinking, it's a municipal court judge who handles the case. If the city tells you to move that broken-down Chevy from your front yard, and you don't get around to it, it's the municipal court that could send you to jail.

To hear Klausner tell it, though, Phoenix Municipal Court is no better than a kangaroo court when it comes to its judges. And after looking at the evidence, I'm inclined to agree.

Last year, when one judge dared to question the court's top administrator, he wasn't merely ignored or reprimanded. He was fired. Since then, Klausner says, other judges have been scared silent.

But Klausner has left. Finally, she says, she's regained the freedom to speak freely.

That means she can tell the true story about the dark secret that the court allowed to fester for more than a year: a story about cowardly decisions, bad leadership, and Phoenix City Council.

As it turns out, it's the story that explains why Karyn Klausner is leaving the job of a lifetime — and why she's whistling as she walks away.

It all started when Judge Michael Carroll dared to question one of the court's personnel decisions.

Judge Carroll, not coincidentally, is married to Karyn Klausner. (They met on the job and wed four years ago.) A 20-year veteran of the municipal court bench, he's respected by lawyers for his intelligence and even temper.

But in December 2005, Carroll wrote the first of the three e-mails that would derail his judicial career. And, as Carroll admits, that e-mail doesn't read like an even-tempered guy.

It reads as if it's from a guy who's angry — and thought he could express himself freely.

Big mistake.

When Carroll wrote the e-mail, his longtime colleague Judge Roxanne Song Ong had recently been appointed the court's presiding judge. Carroll says he and Song Ong had a good relationship, and that there was always a healthy exchange of e-mails among judges on the court, even on controversial matters.

So when Song Ong appointed the court's least experienced judge, Eric Jeffery, as the court's assistant presiding judge, Carroll sounded off.

Song Ong could have chosen numerous judges with great track records, Carroll wrote. Instead, she chose Jeffery — a guy who'd been a city prosecutor only one year earlier.

"I don't think I've ever been as embarrassed for this court as when you announced your plans for the assistant presiding judge position," Carroll wrote. "The absurdity of someone who has not yet undergone an evaluation by the attorneys who appear before him, a reappointment process, or even a year at the job he was actually appointed to perform, potentially participating in judicial performance reviews with judges who have been on the bench for decades is simply mind-boggling. What could you possibly be thinking?"

It was the first of the three e-mails that Carroll would write, each with roughly the same tone. He was, he admits, flabbergasted by his colleague's decision.

But Song Ong wasn't a colleague anymore. She was the presiding judge. And she was wasn't willing to take a word of criticism — much less three e-mails' worth of it.

Rather than respond to Carroll, she convened a meeting of all the judges on the court. The meeting's chief purpose: to warn against the inappropriate use of e-mail.

The meeting seems like a bizarre overreaction. For all his dramatic flair at the keyboard, Carroll is a soft-spoken guy. It's hard to imagine that a simple reply wouldn't have been more effective.

(To others, Song Ong has claimed that Carroll was upset because his wife wanted the promotion. Although Klausner was one of many judges who'd expressed some interest in the position, Carroll says that was not his motivation.)

And, as it turns out, a more serious concern about Eric Jeffery was being whispered about in the court. Klausner says it was just after Jeffery's appointment as assistant presiding judge that she learned something disturbing about Jeffery's past, something verified by court records.

In 1999, while Jeffery was working as a Phoenix city prosecutor, he was accused of harassing a young woman — to the point that she went to the Lake Pleasant Justice Court in Surprise and asked for an order of protection against him.

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