Phillip Woolbright, Disgraced Arizona Justice of the Peace, Wants His Office BackEXPAND
Courtesy of Craig Wismer

Phillip Woolbright, Disgraced Arizona Justice of the Peace, Wants His Office Back

Former Arrowhead Justice of the Peace Phillip Woolbright, who was booted from office in 2012 for judicial misconduct, wants northwest Valley voters to put him back in office this year.

Woolbright, interviewed by Phoenix New Times on Tuesday night, claims he's the victim of lying judges and a court system that's rotten with corruption.

According to Woolbright, he never committed domestic violence, never knowingly violated a court order of protection against his ex-wife, never tried to abuse his power, never dodged a process server, and never handled cases incompetently.

"I'm a victim of slander, and I'm not going to sit still," Woolbright said. "I'm a better person than anyone else running for the job."

The Republican incumbent justice of the peace in the Arrowhead district, Craig Wismer, disagrees — strongly. So do state documents, which describe a pattern of disreputable behavior and bad judgment no one wants to see in any judge.

A 431-page report by the state Supreme Court presents the damning findings against Woolbright from investigations in 2011 and 2012. It should be required reading for all voters in the Arrowhead justice court district, which covers parts of Surprise, Peoria, Glendale, and the unincorporated community of Sun City.

The findings have two major categories: Woolbright's misconduct while dealing with his now ex-wife, and his poor performance on the bench.

Voters elected Woolbright in 2010 to a four-year term in the Arrowhead Justice Court, one of 26 in Maricopa County. In Arizona, JPs don't need to have law degrees — they just need to be over the age of 18 and registered to vote in the district. Woolbright is a construction company owner and foreman, a basketball referee for the Arizona Interscholastic Association and Spiker Sports, and a former preacher.

Court documents state that in February 2011, less than two months after Woolbright began his job as JP, a court commissioner found that Woolbright had committed domestic violence against his then-wife. The court  approved an order of protection that forbade him from going to his wife's home, where his children lived. But he was never charged with domestic violence.

For 10 days, Woolbright dodged a process server who tried to serve him the order of protection, documents show. When he was finally served on April 3, 2011, he called Peoria police and accused his wife of "kidnapping" his four children.

Woolbright said "he would be happy to authorize a search warrant" to raid his wife's house and get the kids, a suggestion that made the officer taking the call feel "uncomfortable," even though he figured Woolbright was joking. He also made an apparently serious suggestion to have police "ping" his wife's cellphone to determine her location.

The officer explained to him what Woolbright already knew but hadn't mentioned — that the court order prevented him from seeing the kids.

On his own, Woolbright wrote a report to the Commission on Judicial Conduct a letter explaining part of the flap, which kicked off an investigation. The commission asked him if he had stopped hearing order of protection cases because of his situation. He wrote back that he had not, and that he hadn't been disclosing his personal problems in such cases, either.

That July, Woolbright went to his wife's home and was arrested.

While the commission proceeded to investigate the allegations against Woolbright, who was transferred out of his district during the probe, the North Valley JP, Gerald Williams, filed a complaint against him that alleged Woolbright was handling cases incompetently.

In several instances recorded in court, Williams alleged, "it did not appear he knew what he was doing."

Woolbright failed to let defendants know about their constitutional rights, treated a criminal case like it was a civil traffic, sentenced a woman to 30 days in jail without asking if she wanted to plead guilty, and "just as odd," subsequently handled two DUI cases correctly, Williams wrote.

Woolbright was convicted of interfering with judicial proceedings, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to a term of  unsupervised probation.

The commission later upheld numerous judicial misconduct allegations against him. The Arizona Supreme Court shot down his appeal and ordered him removed from office in July 2012. He was forbidden from holding public office for five years.

But that five years is up. And in 2015, he managed to get a judge to agree to set aside his guilty verdict. Now he's ready to retake his office.

He began putting up campaign signs recently and, on Tuesday, filed his candidacy paperwork with the Maricopa County Elections department, including 1,536 signatures from area voters.

Craig Wismer, the incumbent Arrowhead JP who had been running unopposed, posted on Facebook last week that it "appears that I've drawn a rather colorful opponent in my bid for re-election."

A former federal bureaucrat and policy adviser, Wismer won an election to serve as Woolbright's replacement in 2012, then won re-election to a full four-year term in 2014. He thinks, at the least, that Woolbright should have waited to file before putting up signs.

If he was in Woolbright's shoes, Wismer said, he could not "in good conscience" run for office again.

"I don't think I'd deserve to be sitting in judgment of other individuals with this kind of baggage," Wismer said. He added that Woolbright's actions cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars when a temporary judge had to be assigned to the Arrowhead district while Woolbright was under investigation.

Woolbright claims all of his troubles are politically motivated or misunderstandings.

"People made mountains out of molehills," he said.

He denies outright that he ever dodged a process server or told a cop his ex-wife had kidnapped their children. His misdemeanor case was bogus, he said, as shown by the fact that a judge ultimately reversed it. A document in his custody case made it seem as though he could visit his children immediately in 2012, and it was so confusing that even a JP like he was couldn't figure it out, he said.

"I made a mistake, and I learned from it," he said. "But anybody could have made the same mistake."

He denies any of the allegations of domestic violence are true. He decided not to fight the order of protection in 2011 in order to avoid making her feel bad, Woolbright said. He currently has custody of two of his children, he said.

Woolbright claims that Justice of the Peace Williams trained him to do the very things Williams later complained about. He said Williams was a "criminal" and that he would find a way to have police "drag away" Williams from office at some point. In Woolbright's view, Williams was angry that Woolbright beat a friend, Lex Anderson, in the 2010 Arrowhead race.

Williams declined to comment specifically, but advised anyone interested in the case to read publicly available documents.

"Not afraid to drain the swamp and make the judiciary great again," says Woolbright's 2018 candidate website, echoing President Trump's hallmark phrases.

"I am a good, honest, qualified, reputable person," Woolbright said. "By overcoming so many obstacles and trials, I just have more experience than anyone else."

He's got that last part right. Republican voters in the Arrowhead district will determine in this August's primary election whether that's the sort of experience they want to return to public office.

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