An estimated 300 people turned out to protest the reign of Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas in front of the county courthouse today -- at least two-thirds of them local attorneys.
The noon rally was a surprising show of strength from a profession that generally prefers filing motions to openly agitating -- and indeed, the few scattered immigration activists in the crowd definitely stuck out from the majority of protesters, who were older, whiter, and almost entirely clad in suits. (For photographs of the rally, see our slide show here.)
In a series of short speeches, the protestors focused on two things: defending the local judiciary from Thomas' onslaught of attacks, and then turning the tables and attacking Thomas.
Attorney Tom Ryan kicked things off by explaining that he was neither a criminal defense lawyer, a Democrat, nor a liberal. "I'm a native of Chandler, Arizona, a Republican, and a lifelong East Valley conservative," he said, setting things straight right out of the chute.
But, Ryan said, it was time for "all concerned men and women of the Bar to come together."
"Andrew Thomas is a bully and a coward," Ryan said, to cheers from the phalanx of lawyers, "who, when he does not get his way, abuses the awesome power of the county attorney in a misguided and unethical attempt to get his own way."
Ryan was followed at the podium by Shawn Aiken, a partner at Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi. Aiken spoke of his horror at watching Thomas at a recent press conference in which the county attorney struggled to explain just why he was charging Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe with bribery and other felonies -- despite being unable to offer evidence that Donahoe had ever taken a bribe of any kind.
Aiken also took issue with the RICO civl suit that Thomas' office filed recently, which accuses local judges and the county Board of Supervisors of being a "criminal enterprise."
"The probable cause statement attached to that complaint reads like a letter to the editor," he said. (And really, we couldn't have stated it any better.)
But perhaps the best line of the day came from Robert J. McWhirter, an attorney with the Maricopa County Legal Defender's Office.
"On behalf of the criminal defense lawyers," he said, "all I can say is, 'It's about time.'"
McWhirter also took issue with the more inane motions that Harvard Law School graduate Thomas and his minion, Deputy County Attorney Lisa Aubuchon, have been filing. "You'd think an attorney who supposedly trained at the premier law school in our country would have some idea how this stuff works," he said. "It's about time we had a county attorney who was a better lawyer!"
The rally was triggered by an email sent by prominent Phoenix criminal-defense attorney Jim Belanger last week. Belanger, with Coppersmith Schermer & Brockelman, said he was inspired to act after Thomas' office filed criminal charges against Judge Donahoe.
"It struck me that we had gone from political self-interest to dangerousness," he said.
The rally was more like a series of speeches than an angry mob. As best we could tell, no brownshirts from the sheriff's office showed up to harass the protestors (although we did espy Barnett Lotstein and Rachel Alexander, two strategists working for Thomas, hovering along the crowd's periphery.)
Belanger asked for (and received) a minute of silence -- which couldn't have been easy, considering the big talkers present -- to express solidarity with Judge Donahoe's plight.
But the closest to a "Kumbaya" moment was when the attorneys recited together the oath they took on admission to the State Bar. (Okay, so no one actually recited: They were reading from a sheets of paper that organizers had handed out.)
Some local attorneys took special pleasure in shouting out the third stanza: "I will not counsel or maintain any suit or proceeding that shall appear to me to be without merit or to be unjust."
Thomas -- the guy who could really stand to brush up on that sacred pledge -- was nowhere in sight. But you can bet that his little sycophants, Lotstein and Alexander, scurried back to the 8th floor of the county building down the street to tell him all about it.
Several Superior Court judges hovered on the periphery, listening in to the goings-on. One of them told us how frustrating it was for judges not to be able stand tall and tell the community at large what is going on these days downtown.
The judge said he had no feeling one way or the other at the moment for how all this is going to turn out. But, he added, that he is not so hopeful.
Under the chilly gray sky on this shortest day of the year, the attorneys then sang three verses of "America the Beautiful."
As moving as that song generally is, our advice to the bellowing barristers in attendance is that they really ought to keep their day jobs -- if, that is, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andy don't move to arrest them instead.
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