Candidates for justice of the peace like to say their courtrooms are truly "the people's courts" in Arizona. But even Judge Judy might be appalled at the judicial shenanigans in Maricopa County as the September 8 primary election nears.
In Scottsdale, one candidate has dumped more than $140,000 of his own money into his campaign treasury. That's unheard of in a JP race; that particular job only pays about $70,000 a year. Meanwhile, Scottsdale police have gotten complaints of vandalism to campaign signs.
In Tempe, the Attorney General's Office has asked the court to remove one contender for JP and one for constable from the ballot for falsifying their residence addresses. They both gave the same address--a condo within the justice court boundaries--but have never lived there, according to an AG investigator.
And in Mesa, an incumbent who's also the county's presiding JP is under fire for mixing church and state. He's an official with the Mormon Church and a couple years ago excommunicated a church member. This year, he ruled against the guy's wife in a judicial proceeding. He's also been targeted by fellow JPs who don't like the way he runs the justice court system and are making sure the story of his potential conflict is being circulated this election season.
Most people have no idea who their justice of the peace is. Yet Justice Court is the place most people come into contact with the court system.
JPs handle civil cases up to $5,000 and small-claims disputes up to $2,500. They rule on most traffic offenses, incuding DUIs, and misdemeanor criminal cases where fines could reach $750 and jail time up to 180 days. They preside over felony arraignments.
There are 22 JPs in Maricopa County with jurisdiction divvied up by specific justice precincts. Come January, when the new West Tempe JP takes office, there will be 23.
Qualifications: You must be at least 18 years old and live within the boundaries of the justice precinct. You don't have to be an attorney or have any formal education or legal training.
JPs are elected to four-year terms and are paid according to the number of cases the court handles; the busiest JPs make about $73,000 a year.
It's a good gig if you can get it. And some people are going to great lengths to get it. To wit:
* Mark Dobronski is challenging Judge Robert Melton for the Scottsdale JP post. Melton has held the position since 1991.
Melton is an attorney; Dobronski is a former administrator for the state Department of Corrections. Both are Republicans, although Dobronski ran for sheriff in 1988 as a Democrat. They are the only two candidates for the seat, so the race will be decided in next week's primary.
Last week, Dobronski notified Melton and election officials that he had contributed $141,046 of his own money to his campaign. That's a hefty chunk of campaign cash by JP standards--where $20,000 campaigns raise eyebrows.
"I'm spending my own money because I believe in what I can do here," says Dobronski, who scolds Melton for raising money the old-fashioned way--from constituents, including attorneys and people who may eventually have business before his court.
Melton calls Dobronski's campaign wad "excessive and obscene." Melton says he'll probably end up spending $30,000, up from about $20,000 he spent to retain the seat in 1994.
So far, according to campaign finance disclosure statements filed last week with the county elections office, much of Melton's money has gone for the usual local campaign expenses--brochures, mailings and political signs.
Dobronski didn't file his report by the required deadline, so it's unknown what he's splurged on other than his large brown-and-yellow signs posted everywhere in Scottsdale and northeast Phoenix.
Those signs have been a source of contention. Dobronski has called the cops several times to say he suspects Melton or his supporters have vandalized or ripped down placards. One incident last month made the front page of the Arizona Republic: Dobronski says he spied Melton himself taking down a Dobronski sign. Melton says he was fixing one of his own signs. The dispute ended with Melton and Dobronski shaking hands and getting together for a cup of coffee.
The chat, however, did little to mend fences. A few days later, on August 18, Dobronski again called police to say he saw a Melton supporter replacing a Dobronski sign with a Melton sign. Now, Dobronski is telling people that a paid Melton staffer was caught red-handed by police in the act of ripping down his signs.
Not so. The alleged sign-tamperer, Kent Pafford, works for the Summit Group, the political consultants that Melton is paying to erect and maintain his signs. And it was Dobronski, not the police, who witnessed the tampering.
Two patrol officers found the suspect in a small pickup that carried a bunch of Melton signs in the back. Dobronski and a friend of his were called to the station for a photo lineup, according to police reports of the incident.
The case has been turned over to the city prosecutor for review, but Scottsdale police spokesman Sergeant Doug Dirren says Pafford could be charged with "tampering with political signs," a misdemeanor.
* The Tempe Justice Court has gotten so busy that state officials decided to split it into two precincts, the existing East Tempe court and the new West Tempe court.
The open seat has drawn one candidate for constable, Charles L. Hopkins, who will obviously win the seat next week if he survives an investigation into his place of residence.
Three candidates are in the JP race--Victor Wilkins, a retired police officer; William Farretta, a businessman; and F. Lee Archer, who quit his job as a Tucson constable in 1994 during an investigation by the Pima County Attorney's Office.
Archer and Hopkins, a former Tempe constable, are under investigation for allegedly giving a false address when they filed papers to run for the Tempe West seats.
Archer moved to the Phoenix area shortly after he resigned his constable job in Pima County, where he was accused of harassing court clerks and racking up thousands of miles on his county car, and hundreds of dollars in phone bills, for personal and political, not court, business. The county attorney ultimately decided not to charge Archer, who denied the allegations in press accounts at the time.
Now, Tempe attorney Edward Conter has drawn a bead on Archer. Conter says he does a lot of landlord-tenant cases and thus is interested in who the new JP will be.
Hopkins and Archer listed the same residence address on paperwork when they filed with the county elections office.
So Conter decided to check the candidates out. County records showed Archer owns a home in Mesa while Hopkins owns a home just outside the West Tempe precinct. Voter registration and driver's license records revealed that while Hopkins and Archer had recently moved to the Tempe condo, neither of their wives had.
On August 8, Conter says, he went to the Tempe condo, which was barren of furniture and had no electricity.
Conter filed a complaint with the AG's Office. The AG has since filed his own action against Archer and Hopkins, asking that a court rule them ineligible to run for the seats. That ruling was expected this week and would require county elections officials to post notices at polling places telling voters that Archer and Hopkins are not eligible to be on the ballot.
An AG's investigator confirmed that no one lived at the address. He said in an affidavit that Archer and Hopkins continue to get mail at their other homes, the utility bills on the condo are sent to Hopkins' house and no water has been used at the condo since December. The condo property management firm and neighbors did not think anyone was living there, he said.
According to the affidavit, Archer told the investigator that he still spends several nights a week at his wife's house in Mesa and that renovations to the condo have prevented the men from moving in.
Neither Archer nor Hopkins could be reached for comment. Archer didn't return calls to a digital pager he listed on his election paperwork. And his campaign treasurer, Chandler Constable Jim Jones, also did not return phone calls to his residence.
Archer conceded recently to the Mesa Tribune that his listing of the Tempe condo "may be stretching it," but said he only lives part-time with his wife in Mesa.
"A lot of married men would love to have this deal to be away from their wives for a little while," he told the paper.
* East Mesa Justice of the Peace R. Wayne Johnson is also President R. Wayne Johnson of the Mesa Arizona East Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In September 1996, Johnson presided over the excommunication of Barlow Hatch, who had been accused of "conduct unbecoming a member" and was booted out when he neglected to show up at a hearing of the High Council.
Two years later, Johnson presided over a Justice Court hearing in which Barlow Hatch's ex-wife, Debra, asked that Barlow's current wife, Lisa, be ordered to stay away from her. Johnson agreed, and issued an order prohibiting Lisa from having any contact with Debra.
Lisa Hatch thinks that means she's been banned from attending the church of her choice. "My husband and I had no contention with [the] order to stay away from [Debra], R. Wayne Johnson's fellow church member," Lisa Hatch wrote to New Times, "but take great issue with a publicly elected official barring any American citizen from any church, including his own."
Johnson says Lisa Hatch can go to any church she likes--except Debra's. "If Debbie's at that ward, then Lisa couldn't be there," he says.
Freedom-of-worship issues aside, some of Johnson's JP colleagues think he should have recused himself from the case.
Lisa Hatch says now that she had no idea Johnson had presided over her husband's excommunication when she appeared before him in court.
Johnson, who's been a JP for seven years, says that's not true. "Everybody knew exactly who I was, and no one objected," Johnson says.
Moreover, Johnson says, the Superior Court rejected Lisa Hatch's appeal of his ruling, which he says means the higher court found there was no conflict of interest.
Still, it's an election year--Johnson's critics have been sending reporters information on the Hatch case as well as revisiting a brouhaha earlier this year that involved other JPs and the Legislature. Fourteen of the 22 JPs signed a "no confidence" resolution against Johnson and blamed him for a range of wasteful policies.
That's further complicated the East Mesa JP race, because Johnson's opponent is Howard Jarrett. Jarrett's wife, Marilyn, is a legislator who earlier this year introduced a bill that would have made it easier for the JPs to oust Johnson as presiding judge. He wouldn't have lost his seat on the bench, just his administrative title and duties.
At the time, Marilyn Jarrett acknowledged that her husband planned to run against Johnson this fall. She said she didn't think it was a conflict to sponsor the anti-Johnson legislation.
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"Talk about a conflict," Johnson says now. "It was an inappropriate conflict for her to sponsor that legislation."
For his part, Howard Jarrett doesn't want the race to focus on either his wife's legislation or the Hatch case. He says he's long wanted to be a JP but never had the opportunity to run before.
It's all good political theater, but the show is soon coming to a close. Of 17 JP races on this year's ballot, 14 of them--including the Scottsdale, Tempe and East Mesa races--will be decided in next week's primary. That's because the candidates are either unopposed or all in the same political party.
Contact Patti Epler at her online address: email@example.com