We first met Mike Ryan, who died suddenly earlier today at the age of 66, shortly after moving here to work at this paper in August 1985. Then, he was a prosecutor at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, and one of that agency's very best.
He spent time with us (on background) discussing a particularly egregious murder case that he was prosecuting. Mike was patient, careful, ironic, and straight-forward in going over the details.
We immediately liked him, and appreciated so much that he trusted us with information crucial to our understanding of both the law and to the facts of the case.
Soon afterward, he became a Superior Court judge, again one of the best, the go-to guy on the bench in the big-time cases in the same way as was his close friend and colleague Ron Reinstein.
Ryan presided over the criminal trial of former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, and a few years later, in the biggest political corruption trial of the modern era, the so-called "AzScam" case that nailed several state legislators.
On the day before one of the AzScam trials, Ryan ordered then-County Attorney Rick Romley into court to explain certain comments that Romley allegedly had made in public about one of the defendants, a greedy lawmaker named Carolyn Walker.
Romley took the stand in what became a classic courtroom moment. We were there.
The back stories' of the two men, Romley and Ryan, were moving: Both had been seriously injured while serving our nation in their 20s in Vietnam. Romley lost his legs there, Ryan wound up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
After Romley tried to explain himself on the witness stand (it wasn't his best moment), Ryan stared down at him from the bench, palpably not happy at what he was hearing.
Finally, the judge spoke. He was anything but a screamer, but everyone in the packed courtroom could hear every word he said.
It was, as they say, a moment.
"I don't want to see you in here again," Mike Ryan told RIck Romley. "...Otherwise, bring your toothbrush."
He was telling the elected and powerful County Attorney not to speak out of turn about a defendant ever again or risk a spot in a jail cell.
Romley took it to heart, as well he should have.
We can't help but imagine how his successor Andy Thomas would have handled the same situation,
Andy surely would have taken the bully pulpit at a press conference as he and Joe Arpaio put a new set of investigators on Ryan's tail. It wouldn't have worked.
Mike Ryan eventually made it to the Arizona Supreme Court, where he distinguished himself for years as a thoughtful, fair and eminently respected jurist.
We stayed in touch with Mike, and had a glass of wine on rare occasion--though, unfortunately not for the past few years.
Though he officially "retired" from the high court in June 2010, Mike Ryan worked yesterday on a case there (he remained on call when needed).
It was a place in the world that he loved and that loved him.
Then, sadly, he went home and died of an apparent heart attack.
For the record, Mike Ryan was a good citizen, and a even better person.
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