It's a battle between good and evil.
At least that's the way former Phoenix justice of the peace Roger Rudman describes the duel for the JP slot in the East Phoenix No. 1 District, where candidates are battling for a little-known judgeship with the fervor and vitriol usually reserved for far more visible and powerful posts.

The race between the three candidates--Democrats Randy Mackey, Rebecca Macbeth and incumbent Judge Dave Braun--has centered around a bitter feud between Braun and Macbeth. They've spent the summer hurling insults and charges of moral turpitude at each other with reckless abandon. Rudman, who resigned his position on the bench in 1986 while reportedly under investigation for misconduct by the state, is a campaign adviser to his erstwhile girlfriend, Macbeth, who he says represents the angelic half of this minibattle between the forces of light and darkness.

For his part, Braun thinks Rudman and Macbeth are the devil and his lady, bent on corrupting the sanctity of the judiciary.

Although most citizens would be hard-pressed to name the JP in their district, the justices direct a substantial amount of the county's legal traffic. JPs possess jurisdiction over preliminary hearings for many felonies, DUI jury trials, landlord-tenant complaints, civil suits involving amounts up to $2,500 and a smorgasbord of misdemeanor offenses. For many people, a JP court appearance is their only encounter with the judicial system, and, oftentimes, their only recourse to settle disputes. The virtually unregulated power and authority held by a JP--as well as the $56,000 annual salary--is an appealing target for aspiring jurists. No legal experience is required.

This year the race for East No. 1 JP is a higher stakes contest than usual, because whoever wins the JP seat in the September 11 primary (there are no Republicans running in East No. 1) could be looking at a lucrative permanent career, rather than just a four-year term. The Arizona Commission on the Courts, a body sponsored by the state Supreme Court, will make recommendations later this year on proposals to reform the state's court system. One of the proposals would create a unified Maricopa County district trial court, incorporating current JPs as judges. These judges would, in effect, receive lifetime appointments.

"Look," Rudman says, "this is an important job, and the fact is that there is a good guy and a very, very bad guy in the campaign. It's easy to see."

But in a race that has featured charges of carpetbagging, district gerrymandering, fraud, sexual misconduct and "judicial abuse" of battered women, as well as a vicious barrage of insults--ranging from "queer" to "slut"--passing between the two main candidates and Rudman, voters might find it hard to detect the difference.

FOR THOSE WHO LIVE or work in east-central Phoenix, the campaign-sign warfare between Macbeth and Braun has become a fixture of daily life--and a prominent part of the city landscape.

In a low-interest race where name recognition is a vital factor, Macbeth's strategy has been to inundate neighborhoods with campaign signs. But a few weeks ago, she says she noticed that a large number of the ubiquitous signs had been knocked down, many with holes punched through her picture. She accused Braun of the destruction by adopting his campaign slogan, "You be the judge!" on a new batch of signs reading, "Who's bashing Rebecca's signs? YOU be the judge."

Braun hotly denies the charge. "Neither myself nor my campaign workers are knocking down her little signs. Take a look at them. They're made of thin, cheap material and they fall down easily during the monsoons we've been having.

"Plus, everybody knows putting your face on a sign makes it a target."
Braun suggests that kids may be damaging Macbeth's signs, and says he, too, has suffered the loss of campaign materials. "My signs, like all candidates, have fallen. I've just replaced mine, while she hasn't."

"Look, I've got eight years on the bench as a JP and I'm not going to risk my reputation tearing up signs like a juvenile delinquent."

While the campaign-sign controversy has been the most visible of their disagreements, the conflict between Braun and Macbeth runs much deeper than a few torn pieces of poster board. Both admit to harboring long-standing ill will toward the other, and the roots of their apparent mutual distaste seem to lie in their connection with Rudman, who Braun served with on the bench and once banned from his courtroom after accusing the then-JP of threatening court staff members.

A member of the JP staff in East Phoenix says there has been bad blood between Rudman and Braun for years. "They have never gotten along," the staffer says. "With those two guys, being petty to each other is a way of life."

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Darrin Hostetler