Pinal County Judge William O'Neil Becomes Arizona's First Presiding Disciplinary Judge

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There's a new Disciplinary Judge in town. And he's looking to break in his whip on the backs of Arizona's worst lawyers.

As part of a sweeping change in attorney-discipline rules, the state Supreme Court today announced the appointment of Arizona's first-ever Presiding Disciplinary Judge.

Pinal County Superior Court Judge William O'Neil will preside over all formal cases of lawyer discipline in the full-time position. His annual salary of $145,000 will be funded by the Arizona State Bar.

O'Neil beat out two other finalists for the spot: Maricopa Superior Court Judge Edward Burke and Colorado lawyer Chip Mortimer.

The longtime Pinal judge has no patience for fools and shysters in the legal profession. We know this because he's the guy who put a stop to the unwarranted, attempted prosecution of Judge Gary Donahoe by former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas.

That being said -- it remains to be seen how the new rules will affect the legal community, or whether the creation of a "PDJ" is a good move. The Arizona Supreme Court kicked off the process for creating the rules in July 2009, at the same time the justices were helping sort out the mess involving Thomas, Sheriff Arpaio, and Maricopa County leaders.

Jennifer Liewer, spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, says she imagines the legal maelstrom in Maricopa would have been on the minds of the justices last summer but that the main goal was to streamline an already-decent disciplinary system by making it more like the one in Colorado. (One advocacy group's "Lawyer Discipline Report Card" in 2006 gave relatively high marks to Arizona and Colorado.)

The new rules won't necessarily result in more lawyer discipline, but it will speed up the process both for people who have been wronged by an attorney and for attorneys who've been accused of bad behavior, Liewer says.

O'Neil will be based in Phoenix, but will travel to rural communities for hearings occasionally, she says.

Seems to us that the ominous title of "Disciplinary Judge," and the notion of getting summoned to appear before one, might be all that's needed to keep most Arizona barristers in line.

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