Longform

Rivera's Edge

Page 5 of 5

In 1976, three Mexicans slipped across the border only to run into Thomas and Patrick Hanigan, brothers in their 20s on a "wetback-hunting party." The Hanigans allegedly detained the illegals against their will, ripped and burned their clothes, robbed them and fired a shotgun at them.

The Hanigans were tried in state superior court for their actions, but were acquitted. Then they were tried in federal court, only to have the trial end in a hung jury. Rivera entered the case when the U.S. government tried them a second time.

"When I did [the Hanigan case], I started reading the transcript of the first trial, and the translator was obviously someone who learned Spanish as a second language," he recalls. "And I'm realizing as I'm looking at the translation--I don't remember what the exact question was, but the answer came up, 'Twenty feet, more or less.' And the lawyer follows up with, 'Is it more, or is it less?' you know, the typical lawyer way, and it really looks like you're going down a specific angle. But if you look at it in Spanish, it's mas o menos, which means 'approximately,' which is a lot more vague. They lost sight of that at the very beginning of the trial, and it became an important issue throughout the whole trial. I speak to this person for the very first time and he tells me mas o menos, and I immediately know what he's trying to say at the very beginning. Big difference."

The brothers were tried together, but with two juries, one for each brother. One jury brought in a guilty verdict, the other acquitted.

While at the U.S. Attorney's Office, Rivera also handled the first of many major cases against the Arizona Department of Corrections, concerning medical care and the amount of space required for each prisoner. The consent decree was signed by the feds, and the state changed prison conditions for the better--stipulating just how many prisoners could be packed into a cell--and set the stage for major battles between the federal court and ADOC during Fife Symington's terms as governor.

Rivera left the public sector in 1981 to work as a personal-injury lawyer in the private firm Langerman, Begam, Lewis & Marks, and in 1984 he formed the practice Rivera, Scales & Kizer. But he still took the occasional pro bono case. He was city attorney for the town of El Mirage. And he worked hard to overturn the new congressional districts that had been set by a three-judge panel in 1992. Rivera represented the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which felt that the new districts should have been drawn in a way that a Hispanic would be elected. He lost the case, which went to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the appeal was denied.

He also coached Little League and did everything else you need to do to build a family. He was living happily ever after when Congressman Pastor called and asked if he'd be U.S. Attorney.

Pastor gave Rivera just 24 hours to make his decision.

Rivera's term will end after the next federal election in 2000; the next presidential administration will appoint its own U.S. Attorney. With one year in office and another ahead of him, Rivera's supporters already have plans for his future.

"A couple of years as U.S. Attorney under his belt would qualify him as a judge," Pastor says.

Over the course of interviews for this article, many of Rivera's acquaintances said the same. And although Rivera admits that he has thought about a judgeship, he claims he is not so ambitious as to lobby for one.

"I make threats to my wife that I'm going to go out and teach high school history," he says.

Teaching would fit more into his interests, his low-key manner, his sense of grassroots community duty.

Even more, he'd rather stay U.S. Attorney.
"If I could keep this job the rest of my life, I'd keep it the rest of my life," Rivera says.

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: [email protected]

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Michael Kiefer