The hot talk around the Maricopa County Courthouse in recent weeks hasn't been about juicy murder cases or Sheriff Joe. What people really want to know is why three court commissioners--Laura Estay, Joel Glynn and Roy Waddell--were forced to resign August 9.
The forced courthouse resignations were the first in anyone's memory. Other than a cryptic Arizona Republic story which alluded to unspecified problems, the media have ignored the situation.
The unprecedented firings have shattered careers and friendships, and have left many of the county's 24 other commissioners wondering if they're next on the hit list.
"This is a scary time for every commissioner who's not a friend of John Foreman," says one commissioner, referring to the newly appointed presiding judge, who demanded the resignations without specifying why. "No one can cite anything but speculation about why he went after Roy and Laura. To go from an $87,500-a-year job to nothing overnight, without even being told why, is pretty brutal from where I sit."
Commissioners are one step below Superior Court judges on the judicial totem pole. In Juvenile Court matters, for example, they rule on everything but contested hearings. Those cases generally are handled by Juvenile Court judges.
New Times spoke with commissioners, judges, staffers and attorneys in an attempt to learn what had prompted the dismissals. The rumor mill has been working overtime: Sources mention chronic tardiness, misuse of sick time and poor judicial temperament allegedly exhibited by the deposed three. All of those interviewed, however, confirm that their comments are based on hearsay and speculation.
"People are looking at this and saying, 'There has to be a reason,'" says Roy Waddell, a 47-year-old who had been a Juvenile Court commissioner for almost six years. "I had excellent evaluations about my performance. A week before, Foreman had told all the commissioners that he was starting with a clean slate. Then, boom, I'm gone. I'm trying to make sense out of this."
One reason for the lingering mystery is that court commissioners are "at will" employees. That means Judge Foreman had the right to fire them with or without a valid cause. This time, he chose the latter.
Foreman won't talk about it.
"There's nothing I can say but no comment," says Foreman, a respected jurist with a reputation for meticulousness.
That reputation makes his decision even more puzzling. No one has been able to pinpoint any specific wrongdoing by Estay or Waddell that could have constituted a firing offense. (Little is known about Joel Glynn's situation, and this story focuses exclusively on Estay and Waddell.)
"My reputation is all I have," says Estay, a 38-year-old Chilean immigrant who was appointed to the Juvenile Court bench in 1990 by James McDougall, who at the time presided over the court's juvenile division. "And I think that my reputation used to be pretty darned good."
So good, in fact, that she and Waddell already have collected letters of recommendation or promises of such from several Superior Court judges, including Colin Campbell--the assistant presiding Juvenile Court judge under Foreman.
Ken Fields, another juvenile judge, says he's convinced that the innuendoes concerning Estay's alleged on-job tardiness are false.
"Touting the company line," Fields says, "I'll agree that John [Foreman] had the right to do what he did. But in Laura's case, I don't think it was the right thing to do. She's an honest and genuine person who put in a full day's work and expressed an honest opinion. That's what is expected from a judicial officer."
Like Waddell, Estay's judicial performance evaluations generally have been average to above-average. And like Waddell, she insists that no smoking gun led to her forced resignation.
"It looks like Judge Foreman did it to make room for others," Estay tells New Times, referring to the three new commissioners appointed the day after the resignations. "What he did to me was wrong. All he would say was, 'Our lawyers say we don't have to give a reason.' I felt like a criminal."
In separate interviews, Estay and Waddell say they suspect Foreman's focus on them escalated after a bizarre chain of events in July involving presiding Commissioner John Popelik.
The pair say Popelik admitted to lying about his original claims that Foreman was angry at them for being a few minutes late to work. Estay's version:
"I came in late one day, 8:08 to be exact, and Roy was coming in at the same time. John [Popelik], who, by the way, had received a written reprimand from Judge McDougall about his own lateness, tells us that Foreman is really mad. I tell him, 'I had a problem with one of my little kids, and I'll call John up and tell him what happened.' He says, 'Don't call him.'"
But Estay did call Foreman several days later. She says Foreman told her he had little idea what she was talking about. Days later, Estay confronted Popelik. She claims he soon 'fessed up.
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"He came into my office crying," Estay says. "He says, 'I set something into motion that I can't stop. I panicked.' I was flabbergasted. Later, he gets me and Roy off the bench and says he's going to come clean with Foreman. He looks at me and says, 'I screwed this up. I lied.'"
Popelik apparently didn't come clean with Foreman.
"When he came back from Foreman's office," Estay continues, "all he said was that John would be coming over for a one-on-one with us. When that happened, I told Judge Foreman about the Popelik issue. He didn't address it one way or the other. Next thing I know, he wants my signature on a resignation letter."
A judicial assistant in Popelik's office said the commissioner was "unavailable" for comment.
But no one, including Estay and Waddell, says he believes Foreman would wield his hatchet on the basis of the convoluted Popelik scenario.
"I guess I agree with everyone else," Waddell says, "that there has to be more, at least in John Foreman's mind. People figure you've got to be a total idiot to lose your job as a commissioner. I mean, totally incompetent, on the take, doing drugs or something very bad. But I'm not any of those things. The worst thing in my recent evaluation was that I sometimes used the courtroom as a soapbox. But I was dealing with kids' issues, for chrissakes. It's impossible sometimes not to express yourself."
Waddell's severance pay of about five weeks ends September 24. He says he wants to try to put the episode behind him and move on. But he's finding that difficult so far.
"I've always had respect for Judge Foreman," he says, "but I just don't know. Maybe I gave him too much credit. Maybe he felt he had to do something because the Juvenile Court is under pressure with the governor, the attorney general, the Legislature and the public. But he's made a mess of the wrong lives in doing it.