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Sleeping Disorder in the Court

A wide-awake John M. Carpenter.
Paolo Vescia

A jumble of "chaos" -- a narcoleptic judge, bitter staff infighting, political rivalries, an exiled constable and apparent forgery -- is creating turmoil in the courtroom of Phoenix Justice of the Peace John M. Carpenter.

The bizarre environment at East Phoenix No. 1 Justice Court has triggered at least one investigation into allegations of staff harassment and a hostile work environment.

A separate request calling for an inquiry into Carpenter's judicial fitness has been forwarded to Judge Robert Meyer, presiding judge of the county Superior Court's criminal division. The request was made last week by a public defender. Meyer declined to comment on the matter. Such an inquiry could be the first step in removing Carpenter.

The confusion and bitterness swirling within Carpenter's courtroom is presenting a significant challenge to justice court officials seeking normalcy.

"We are trying to bring order out of chaos," says G.M. Osterfeld, the county's presiding justice of the peace.

According to interviews with court officials and county documents, problems in Carpenter's court -- which handles initial appearances, preliminary hearings, forcible detainers, small claims and traffic violations in central Phoenix -- surfaced soon after he was elected to the $70,000-a-year position last year.

Several defense attorneys began to notice that Carpenter, 49, appeared to be falling asleep on the bench.

One attorney, Christopher Dupont of the county's Office of the Legal Defender, began to closely monitor Carpenter's performance.

In one instance, Dupont sought a mistrial after Carpenter dozed off during a July 16 hearing.

". . . I have to point out for the record that Your Honor had his eyes closed about the last 15 minutes of the hearing before we took break," Dupont says, according to an official court transcript.

"I was -- " responds Carpenter before Dupont cuts him off.

"Excuse me, we heard you snore, and I saw your head bobbing up and down," Dupont tells the judge.

"I have narcolepsy and I take narcolepsy medicines," Carpenter replies. Narcolepsy is an affliction that causes people to suddenly fall asleep.

"Were you having a narcolepsy episode, Your Honor?" Dupont asks.

"I don't know. I don't think so," Carpenter responds.

Dupont isn't satisfied with Carpenter's reply.

"Okay. I'd also like to ask for a mistrial on that ground," Dupont says.

"Your motion is denied," rules Carpenter.

Moments later, transcripts show Carpenter expressing confusion over which attorney had been presenting evidence in the case. At one point, Carpenter incorrectly commends Dupont for his ability to ask questions and describe the case.

Those questions, however, were asked by Dupont's co-counsel, Jerald Moore.

"Your Honor, I'm Mr. Moore, and I've asked all the questions," Moore says. "Mr. Dupont hasn't asked any questions yet."

Presiding Justice of the Peace Osterfeld said Monday he had heard "rumors" that Carpenter was falling asleep during hearings but had not yet received an official complaint. Nevertheless, Osterfeld says he took the rumors seriously.

"We don't view it very favorably," says Osterfeld. "There is no way in the world we want judges falling asleep."

Osterfeld says he has discussed the situation with Carpenter and asked Carpenter to meet with his doctor and possibly change his medication.

"He's very amenable to that," Osterfeld says.

Osterfeld is optimistic that Carpenter can address the narcolepsy.

"John gets kind of woozy, and we are able to move him back into reality by talking to him," Osterfeld says. "From that standpoint, I think he's treatable."

Carpenter declined to return three phone calls seeking comment.

Carpenter also must contend with a rebellion by several members of his staff who objected to the behavior of the court's constable, John Powers.

"The constable would get in the clerks' faces and scream and holler at them and call them names," says Osterfeld.

Powers also allegedly made crude comments about the dress of some of the female employees, Osterfeld says.

Staff concerns were brought to Carpenter's attention, Osterfeld says, but Carpenter declined to take action against Powers.

"John has some problems with management," says Osterfeld.

Barbara Lasater, chief deputy administrator for the justice courts, eventually convinced Carpenter to schedule an unusual meeting to determine how to handle complaints about Powers' conduct.

Powers declined to be interviewed for this story.

According to county records, on the afternoon of July 8, Carpenter closed court early and convened his staff. The staff voted to forbid Powers -- an elected official whose duty requires him to deliver official court documents -- from entering nonpublic areas of the court facility.

That evening, Carpenter discussed the matter with Carlos Mendoza, who at the time was a close friend and hearing officer in Carpenter's court. The relationship has since soured.

 

Mendoza says in an interview that he told Carpenter he had made a mistake by banning Powers from the office. As the evening progressed, Mendoza says Carpenter drank heavily and became increasingly distraught.

At one point, Mendoza says Carpenter threatened to kill himself or resign from the court. Later, Mendoza claims, Carpenter severely beat his pet basset hound, which had slipped outside.

"He picked up the dog by the neck and started choking him," Mendoza says. "After the dog slips out of his hand, it tries to run inside and he starts slamming the door on the dog's head."

The next day, Carpenter issued a memo rescinding his staff's vote to restrict Powers. That move triggered a harsh response from chief deputy court administrator Lasater.

"In fact, it is in direct conflict to what the staff not only voted on [majority], but contrary to your commitment to your staff to uphold and honor their vote," Lasater wrote to Carpenter.

Lasater says her office, which oversees all staff employees in the county's justice court system, is conducting an "investigation and looking into the operations of the (Carpenter) court."

Carpenter's directive has again been reversed. Powers has since been forbidden from entering the courtroom and nonpublic areas of the court.

"We put an office downstairs where he can pick up paperwork where there is no contact with the clerks," says Osterfeld.

While the uproar over Powers was reaching a crescendo, Carpenter and Mendoza began scrapping.

Mendoza -- one of two opponents of Carpenter's in last year's election -- was appointed earlier this year as a hearing officer by Carpenter. Mendoza's responsibilities included ruling on traffic cases and small claims disputes.

Mendoza, who also owns numerous rental properties, began filing eviction cases against tenants in Carpenter's court. In several instances, the properties were not within the East Phoenix No 1. Justice Court's jurisdiction.

While plaintiffs can file eviction cases in any justice court, questions soon arose over the propriety of having a hearing officer file out-of-district cases before a judge who had appointed him.

Mendoza says Carpenter always told defendants in cases he filed that Mendoza was a hearing officer in the court and a personal friend of Carpenter's. New Times heard Carpenter make the disclosure on several occasions.

Nevertheless, Osterfeld says he and other judges convinced Carpenter that it was inappropriate to have Mendoza serving as a hearing officer because of their friendship and Mendoza's eviction cases.

Carpenter agreed with Osterfeld and terminated Mendoza's position as a hearing officer -- which is a nonpaid position -- on August 30.

Three days later, Mendoza gave a tape-recorded statement to public defender Dupont outlining numerous concerns he had concerning Carpenter's performance as a judge.

On the tape, a copy of which was provided to New Times, Mendoza alleges that Carpenter attempted to serve alcohol to his 19-year-old son. In a separate interview, Mendoza alleges that Carpenter kept an open bottle of whiskey in his courtroom desk.

When told of Mendoza's allegations, Osterfeld was quick to downplay the reports.

"He [Mendoza] doesn't have any credibility with me," Osterfeld says citing an instance where Mendoza created a massive personnel problem for him by making inappropriate "locker-room" statements.

"He had a private conversation with someone. He then took that conversation into an open forum with people who were impacted by that private conversation and created a personnel issue storm for me," says Osterfeld.

Problems within the court have turned up on official court documents where Carpenter's signature appears to have been forged on several occasions.

Records obtained by New Times, for example, show three distinct signatures for Judge Carpenter appearing on documents filed during a one-week period in late August. The documents were related to two forcible detainers filed by Mendoza in eviction proceedings.

The same signature appears on the summons for two cases, which were both filed on August 20. A second signature for the judge appears for a judgment signed on August 24, and a third signature for the judge appears for another judgment signed on August 27.

Osterfeld says a judge or hearing officer must sign all judgments. According to Osterfeld, the summons should also be signed by the judge but that clerks can use a hand stamp of the judge's signature. No hand stamp appears to have been used in these instances.

This isn't the first time Carpenter's actions have attracted scrutiny. He was arrested in May 1998 after firing a pistol in his house and pointing the gun at a person who had come to his home to pick up a software program.

Carpenter, a former process server, was charged by police with aggravated assault, and his preliminary hearing was scheduled for the courtroom in which he is now the judge.

 

The charges, however, were dropped.

The judge with many signatures. Click here to see additioanl documents.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address: jdougherty@newtimes.com


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