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.

Judge Knot

As one of Arizona's most influential lobbyists and business leaders, Marty Shultz isn't accustomed to getting his political butt kicked.

In 1995, Shultz was asked by Arizona's Supreme Court justices to lead a high-powered commission to reform Arizona's limited-jurisdiction courts, the bottom tier of Arizona's judicial pyramid where more than 90 percent of Arizona's legal disputes are settled.

The commission was presented with extensive evidence of graft and waste in the state's lower courts, particularly in Arizona's 83 Justice Courts, where elected justices of the peace handle everything from traffic fines and apartment evictions to felony preliminary hearings.

The Justice Courts had remained virtually the same since real bullets were used in Tombstone. And by 1995, 700,000 court cases were being handled each year by judges who met less stringent mental competency standards than those for people facing the death penalty in Arizona.

The courts were found to be inefficient, understaffed, unsafe and varying wildly in the quality of justice depending on the personalities, prejudices and work ethics of the judges and the court clerks.

Commission members spent thousands of hours researching and creating an extensive plan for reform. Consensus was built, strings were pulled, debts were called in.

Five reform bills were brought before the Legislature, including a bill to raise requirements for people running for justice of the peace. With all that power and justice behind reform, it looked like a political slam dunk.

Instead, it was a political slaughter. And Shultz and his bloodied band of influential do-gooders found out where the real power lies in Arizona.

"The JPs have it," says Shultz, vice president and chief lobbyist for the Fortune 500 company Pinnacle West Capital, the parent company of Arizona Public Service.

"Everything seemed to be going well," Shultz says of the failed campaign. "Then I got the call."

It was Don Aldridge, then speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives. Aldridge told Shultz that the justice of the peace in his district in Mohave County, David Babbitt, cousin of former Arizona governor and then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, didn't like the bills.

"So Don tells me he's holding them up," Shultz says. "And, poof, all that work by this long line of incredible people was dead once again."

The "once again" refers to past reform attempts. Since 1951, there have been at least 10 major attempts to overhaul Arizona's Justice Courts.

Mo Udall tried it. Sandra Day O'Connor tried it. Chief justices Frank X. Gordon, William Holohan and Stanley Feldman tried it. Even popular Democratic businessman Eddie Basha gave it a shot.

And for the most part, all were summarily dispatched by Arizona's JPs.

"It's a pretty good group of people who have been beaten badly by the JPs," says former Arizona chief justice Holohan. "People don't realize it, but they have quietly been a very powerful group for a long time. They will fight like hell if you mess with their livelihood."

Nationally, as in Arizona, the debate on lower-court reform has raged for more than three decades. For the most part, the fight in Arizona has mirrored the national fight.

In general, the battle lines form along the issue of statewide court unification.

Reformers ultimately want all courts in the state -- from municipal and justice courts up -- to be state courts. Justice courts and municipal courts would, in essence, become satellite state courts -- sort of like local post offices.

Reformers also want higher qualifications for lower-court judges. Presently to be a justice of the peace in Arizona, you must be 18 years old, a registered voter and be able to read English.

Most recently, reformers suggested that judges need a bachelor's degree, to be at least 30 years old, have no past felony convictions, be of good moral character and pass a minimum-competency test before becoming a judge.

Others believe JPs should have a law degree. It is this point, above all others, that stirs the most passion in debate. (Today's reformers aren't actively pushing for a law degree; the effort is aimed more at boosting JP qualifications.)

Law degree or not, the reforms that are being advocated would mean the JP job would be unattainable for many of the current JPs.

"Nothing gets people fired up like being out there fighting for your job," Holohan says.

On the reform side, you have Arizona's professional elite. Although zero for 10 in the battle for reform, they claim the upcoming redrawing of political boundaries in Arizona will bring power to an urban electorate that wants a more professional, streamlined, centralized, computerized and accountable lower-court system run entirely by the state. Major reform is inevitable, they believe.

On the other side, you have Arizona's JPs and most elected officials, who say Arizonans want autonomous, community-based courts run by fellow citizens from all walks of life who know and love their communities.

To a large degree, it is a battle between lawyers and non-lawyers. It's a debate easily tainted by populist demagoguery or professional snobbery. Non-lawyers label major reform as a "lawyer full-employment act." Lawyers say, basically, that it makes sense that a person dispensing justice has some training in the law.

Muddling the issue, say national legal experts, is the fact that there is no definitive proof supporting either side of the reform argument.

"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.

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."

"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.

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.

"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.

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.

That said, at this point, nobody in Arizona is seriously pushing legislation that all JPs must be lawyers even though many in the legal community think JPs should have a law degree.

"We ask that doctors go to medical school," Myers says. "I'm not sure what's wrong with asking that judges go to law school."

Provine does support increasing requirements. She supports the idea that judges should have to pass a competency test. She recommends JPs be given extensive legal education upon election. (Arizona's JPs do receive about the equivalent of three credit hours of legal education after election. They also must attend the yearly judicial conference.)

Unified court systems tend to work better than autonomous confederacies, she says.

Arizona's pay structure for JPs would appear to be screwy and rife for corruption, she adds.

Some JPs, particularly Tom Freestone, agree that JPs should be paid a straight salary rather than basing it on how many cases they push through.

Marty Shultz, who led the 1995 reform push, doesn't believe the Justice Courts have come nearly far enough in addressing their problems. He still believes strongly that the massive reform movement of 1995 must be reborn.

Even with the JP lobby apparently gaining even more power, he believes that the recommendations made by his commission will one day be put in place in Arizona.

Shultz believes the key will be the redrawing of Arizona's legislative districts to better reflect the movement of the state's population into the Valley.

That anti-gerrymandering redistricting, begun last year with voter approval of Proposition 106, will create equal-population districts that will be used to draw up 30 legislative districts by next year's election.

Stronger urban representation, he believes, will mean more representation for college-educated urban professionals who have higher expectations of their court system.

"Arizona is changing," he says. "I think the time will come pretty soon when Arizonans will demand that the lower-courts change, too."


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