Joe Arpaio Gets (Minor) Victory -- Court Rejects Criminal Sanctions Against Chief Deputy

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It's not a homerun -- much less a grand slam.

But considering how frequently Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas have been spanked by both the appellate and Superior courts lately, we suppose today's opinion issued by the Court of Appeals in Trombi v. Donahoe counts as a victory of sorts for the hapless pair.

At issue was a ruling made by Gary Donahoe, the Maricopa County Superior Court's presiding criminal judge. (And, yes, he's the same guy Thomas and Arpaio are charging with criminal behavior in a recently filed complaint. More on that in a minute.)

But first, the case history:

Back in 2007, court proceedings nearly ground to a halt when the Sheriff's Office failed get inmates to court on time. Then-presiding judge Anna Baca ordered the sheriff to get his act together. When the Sheriff's Office kept messing up, last summer, Baca's replacement, Judge Donahoe, ordered Deputy Chief David Trombi to appear before him and explain why he wasn't in contempt of that order.

After a bunch of back and forth, Donahoe ruled last September that Trombi was, in fact, in contempt. Because the MCSO had forced jurors, lawyers, and judges to wait, Judge Donahoe ordered that Trombi pay a series of fines to those people. The judge also ordered Trombi to sign an agreement saying that "absent extraordinary cirumstances," the Sheriff's Office would get inmates to court on time -- or else pay a fine of $2,000.

Trombi appealed.

Today's ruling rejects a number of the sheriff's arguments.

Contrary to what the sheriff and county attorney claimed in their filings, the appellate court wrote, Donahoe had every right to order Trombi in to court to explain himself. Judge Donahoe had jurisdiction; he had the "inherent authority," they wrote. He even had the right to order the sheriff to sign the agreement in question, or else face that $2,000 fine.

But Judge Donahoe ultimately didn't have the right, the appellate judges concluded, to order Trombi to pay fines to idled defense lawyers, prosecutors, and jurors.

"Imposition of a fine of any amount as a criminal contempt sanction required the court to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Trombi's contemptuous conduct was willful," the appellate judges wrote. "This it did not do."

So the fines assessed for individual cases are out -- but the ruling appears to allow Donahoe to collect on that $2,000 fine on behalf of the court. That, the court wrote, was "issued under the appropriate procedure." And, since time has passed for Trombi to sign the agreement, Trombi apparently will have to pay up.

But that leaves us wondering just how the heck Donahoe can possibly follow up on this one. Yes, the appellate court ruling vindicates the judge on all but the most technical of points -- but (not waiting for the appellate ruling) the sheriff and county attorney have already filed criminal charges against him in part because of his actions in the Trombi case.

Indeed, the laughable probable-cause statement the county attorney filed in that case spends much time detailing the back-and-forth between Donahoe and Trombi.

Donahoe is "biased against the sheriff," the document concludes. "Several recent rulings demonstrate Judge Donahoe's bias. First ... Judge Donahoe charged Deputy Chief Trombi with contempt and fined him for his conduct. ..."

We could hardly blame Judge Donahoe of washing his hands of this one: Who wants to face even more criminal charges for work that the appellate court finds okay? Especially now that Thomas and Arpaio will surely argue that Donahoe is biased against them because they're trying to arrest him, and all.

And really: Now that the appellate court has said that 9/10ths of Donahoe's handling of the Trombi matter was correct, does that mean they're now part of the conspiracy against the county attorney and the sheriff? Will we see criminal charges against them, too?

We recommend reading the whole ruling here; surely, Arpaio and Thomas will try to paint this as a major, major victory, so best be prepared.

We also point you toward the appellate court's evisceration of a major part of the whole Arpaio/Thomas conspiracy theory.

The pair's crackerjack legal team had apparently theorized that Donahoe didn't have the right to tell the sheriff what to do. Au contraire, wrote the appellate judges.

"[I]t is the sheriff's duty under [the law] to attend the court, not the sheriff's power under [a different part of the law] to operate the jails, that is at issue," they wrote. "No court order instructed MCSO to manage the jails or inmate transportation in any particular manner. Judge Baca's order did not 'micromanage' the means -- it merely directed a simple result: the timely appearance of inmates...The court has jurisdiction to control and discipline acts that the sheriff commits while acting as an officer of the court."

Nice to have that on the record, yes?

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