Power Play

Maricopa County law enforcement violated the constitutional rights of this newspaper and its readers in October, going so far as to subpoena the identities of anyone who'd looked at New Times online in the past four years. When the paper's leaders revealed the apparent grand jury probe on our cover, they were arrested.

It wasn't much of a leap for Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas to go after a publication that's uncovered abuses in their offices for years. They'd already proven themselves adept at trampling the rights of prisoners, political enemies, and Mexican migrants.

Arpaio sought criminal prosecution of New Times for publishing his address in 2004 as part of our investigation of his commercial real estate transactions, and Thomas responded by appointing a special prosecutor who subpoenaed not only the records and e-mails of the paper's writers and editors, but information on the Internet-viewing habits of our readers.

Public outrage, sparked by the arrests of the paper's top executives, forced the county attorney to drop charges of violating grand jury secrecy against Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin. It also forced him to drop the Arpaio-inspired probe of the paper for supposedly violating an arcane law that makes it illegal to publish law officers' addresses in cyberspace but allows such publication in newspapers and magazines.

It's no wonder that Thomas' special prosecutor, Dennis Wilenchik, didn't hesitate to jail newspapermen and attempt to invade the privacy of countless thousands of Web viewers; Thomas and Wilenchik already had launched a full-scale assault on the county's judiciary.

We live in an era when judges are under attack nationally (there have even been threats of assassination), but Thomas put his anti-migrant spin on the movement. He demanded that all 95 Superior Court judges be removed from ruling on his attempt to keep the criminal court's associate presiding judge from handling his office's cases. The problem was, as he saw it, that Judge Timothy Ryan was ruling against Thomas' prosecutors on too many illegal alien cases.

His ploy didn't work this time, but there's no reason to think that Thomas will give up his fight against the judiciary.

In this week's installment of our continuing series "Target Practice," we go behind the scenes to examine county law enforcement's unprecedented attack on the Superior Court. The county attorney, aided by his ally Arpaio, is capitalizing on a national trend against the judiciary to push a migrant-bashing political agenda that Thomas hopes will one day put him in the governor's office.

Two things that Rochelle Ryan read on the morning of October 4 scared her half to death.

She was checking out a story on the Internet at her home in Chandler a day after a zealous private attorney handpicked by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas tried to make a public trophy of her husband, Timothy.

The setting for the verbal assault had been the fifth floor of the East Court building in downtown Phoenix.

Tim Ryan isn't a criminal defendant or a litigant. He is the associate presiding criminal judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court, the second-in-command on the criminal bench.

The headline on the Arizona Republic Web site read: "Judge Says He Won't Quit Court Cases."

Rochelle Ryan already knew that the county attorney's hired gun, Dennis Wilenchik, had accused her husband of being "a danger to public safety" because he allegedly protected undocumented immigrants charged with serious crimes. She also knew that Thomas was trying to get Tim Ryan booted off the criminal bench, an unprecedented move in this jurisdiction.

What really got to her was something attached to the end of the online story. At 4:50 that morning, someone had posted an anonymous response: "The judge, like all judges, is an arrogant pig. I say string the guy up from a streetlight in downtown Phoenix until his flesh rots off."

A few hours later, someone wrote, "Does anyone remember [assassinated Republic reporter] Don Boles [sic]? The reported [sic] who was blown up in his car. Not sure why, but you gotta admit it was darn effective. He's not writing [sic] anymore . . . Do you catch where I'm going with this? What's good for the reported [sic] is certainly good enough for [the judge]?"

Tim Ryan was getting the couple's children ready for school when his wife told him about the threats.

He quickly e-mailed presiding Superior Court Judge Barbara Mundell, "I see it as a crackpot comment, but my wife has a point that I should be worried about crackpots who act on these types of threats."

Ryan said he was going to contact the Chandler Police Department to see whether it would send officers to patrol their neighborhood "so my wife can sleep at night."

Judge Mundell and others at the courthouse immediately contacted their in-house security detail, which, in turn, called the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin