Injustice System

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

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.

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.

That kind of order is serious, a step up from a restraining order. A judge grants it only if there's evidence of a domestic violence crime — physically abusing a girlfriend, say, or stalking an ex-lover.

The docket shows that Jeffery chose not to get a hearing to contest the woman's allegations. His accuser was granted a protective order for 12 months. (Jeffery did not return calls for comment.)

It would be an ugly mark on anyone. But with Jeffery, it raises bigger questions.

Namely, after getting accused of something so ugly and not even bothering to fight it, how could this guy possibly think he was a good candidate for judge?

And where did he get the hubris, after serving as judge for only a year, to seek a promotion to become the court's top deputy — second-in-command at a court that handles more than 200 orders of protection each month?

A guy with this kind of record may be qualified for plenty of jobs. Helping to run a court that handles domestic violence cases is simply not one of them.

But rather than being taken seriously, Jeffery's dark history was virtually ignored by anyone with the power to look into it. Instead, it was Judge Carroll — who'd done nothing other than write some feisty e-mails to a longtime colleague — who got fired.

As with a lot of courts, we the people get little say about who serves at the municipal level. A judicial selection advisory board makes suggestions to the city council, and the council then picks new judges from its list of recommendations. For those judges to keep their jobs, the council must vote to reappoint them every four years.

The council almost always listens to the judicial board. But in this case, the board voted to reappoint Carroll. The city council fired him anyway.

A number of lawyers wrote letters to the judicial board and to council members, praising Carroll. Only Song Ong spoke against him.

Although Jeffery was up for reappointment at the same time as Carroll, Song Ong never raised a single concern about him.

And it's not like Song Ong didn't know about the protective order. Jeffery did not volunteer the information on his application to be judge, records show. But on January 25, 2006, Karyn Klausner says she talked about the issue with Song Ong.

On February 1, the judicial advisory board was weighing the renomination of both Carroll and Jeffery. But while Song Ong talked about Carroll's e-mails, she never said a bad word about Jeffery.

And by the time the city council voted to oust Carroll in May, Klausner says each member had been given copies of Jeffery's docket, which clearly shows the order of protection.

But Song Ong said nothing. And the city council didn't ask.

Karyn Klausner is livid that, even as the council fired her husband, neither the court administration nor city leaders bothered to so much as question Jeffery about the order against him.

"It is an outrage," Klausner says. "It is outrageous, incomprehensible, and inexcusable not to look into this, and to do it publicly — so that members of the public have confidence that the right thing was done. You don't ignore this kind of thing in the business we're in."

After all, this is the court that handles orders of protection for more than 2,500 people in Phoenix every year.

Shouldn't it take those orders seriously?

Beyond that, you don't run a good judge out of office for daring to criticize an administrative decision.

You don't do that unless you're afraid of anyone who dares to speak his mind.

So, here's what a hot potato all this is: No one wants to talk about it. City Councilman Dave Siebert, who chaired the council committee that railroaded a capable 20-year court veteran, wouldn't return my calls. Nor would Councilman Greg Stanton, who privately indicated to at least one person last May that he found the allegations against Jeffery "troubling."

Not troubling enough, apparently, for the council to investigate. The issue seems to have vanished into the ether — along with any memory of Judge Michael Carroll.  

As for Roxanne Song Ong, she's not saying anything. The court's spokesman, Loren Broud, said she wouldn't be returning my call.

"On advice of counsel, it's inappropriate for us to make a comment on Judge Klausner and the other matters you called about," he said — matters that include Carroll and Jeffery.

But it's pretty obvious that if Song Ong cared about the truth, she'd have no reason to hide behind her "counsel."

Yes, Michael Carroll sued the city, but his suit was thrown out in April. U.S. District Court Judge Neil V. Wake ruled that the city had the right to fire Carroll — and to weigh his e-mails in that decision.

That doesn't mean the city was right to fire him, of course. (Wake wasn't ruling on that question.) But the case's closure means that the convenient "my lawyer says I can't talk" excuse is total bunk.

If I could get Song Ong on the phone, I'd like to ask her why getting rid of a dissenter was more important than investigating a domestic violence allegation. And I'd like to know why Eric Jeffery — a guy who scared a young woman enough that she asked the court for a protective order — is now the heir apparent to run the city's municipal court.

I think it's pretty clear why Song Ong isn't calling back. The only good answer to either question is that she screwed up.

In the year since Song Ong successfully lobbied the city council to get rid of Carroll, Klausner says, the court has become a frightening place.

"Since she took over as presiding judge in 2005, every one of our judge's meetings has been tape-recorded," Klausner tells me. "The proffered reason, and I don't believe it, is so that we have minutes from the meetings. Well, we finally got minutes for the first time in April — and she's been taping for more than a year."

Klausner believes that Song Ong's intent is to silence dissenters. And it's working. Klausner says the judges used to enjoy a steady back-and-forth over e-mail, discussing issues both legal and administrative.

Not anymore. "The only e-mails being sent are milquetoasty stuff," Klausner says, dismissively.

Really, can you blame the judges for being milquetoasty after what happened to Carroll? Song Ong actually told the city council that she couldn't run her court with Carroll on it — over a few lousy e-mails.

But Roxanne Song Ong obviously doesn't feel quite so strongly about running her court alongside someone once accused of domestic violence. Even though she's not talking, she's made that incredibly clear.

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