Balls in the Air

Rick Romley remembers precisely what he said to his rescuers after a land mine in Vietnam blew his body apart on April 7, 1969.

"I asked them if my balls were still there," he says.

Turned out, the 19-year-old Marine Corps squad leader's cojónes were among the few outward body parts left intact in the jungle explosion south of Danang.

For the record, losing both legs above the knee and suffering other devastating injuries didn't stop Romley from fathering two sons after returning to the States.

Years later, after he first won election as Maricopa County Attorney in 1988, many wondered if he'd have the balls, metaphorically, to be anything more than another ambitious political hack in this sprawling desert valley.

After all, Romley had been an attorney for just six years when he announced his Republican candidacy for one of the most powerful and high-profile jobs in the state.

No one then knew much about the native Phoenician other than that he talked tough about crime -- all Arizona politicians do -- and walked with a cane for reasons he chose not to disclose at the time. But Romley sneaked past serious competition and moved into the eighth-floor offices in downtown Phoenix as Maricopa County's 25th chief prosecutor since 1912.

Now, in the last days of his historic 16-year tenure, this can be said with certainty about Richard M. Romley: He's been popular and successful, mostly because he's made the right calls in the biggest and toughest cases.

The legislative bribery scandal known as AzScam, the Buddhist temple murder case, and the sex scandals involving Bishop Thomas O'Brien and the Catholic Church spring to mind.

Romley's approval ratings consistently have remained high, even though he's rarely been one to go along to get along with peers in law enforcement and politics.

To the contrary, he's openly looked askance at the publicity-driven tactics of iconic Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose opinion of Romley has been equally low over the years.

And he's no fan of Governor Janet Napolitano, against whom he may run in 2006, even as he grudgingly concedes she's committed to serving Arizona as best she can.

Romley also doesn't have a ton of friends over at Superior Court. Most recently, he butted heads with presiding judge Colin Campbell after Campbell kept sealed the report of a Romley-initiated grand jury report on the Lewis Prison hostage standoff earlier this year.

"That guy [Campbell] ought to wear a crown instead of a robe," Romley says, sneering. "In fact, I'm not overly impressed by a lot of judges over there, though there are some good ones."

As county attorney, he never shied away from going after the rich and powerful, or even after those also in law enforcement.

And though reasonable minds can and will differ on this point, a majority of observers interviewed for this story agree that Romley employed his vast powers as judiciously as might be expected from anyone in his shoes.

Those observers do not include the criminal-defense bar, which generally despises Romley and what he stands for.

Still, the words "zealot" and "rabid" don't describe him fairly.

Calling him a savvy, ambitious politician with a moral compass is closer to the truth.

"I have to say this about Rick," says Mel McDonald, a prominent Phoenix attorney. "It doesn't matter who the hell you are, he sticks by his principles, and he's very idealistic, with a clear view of right and wrong."

McDonald says Romley sometimes acted to his own potential political detriment as county attorney.

"I thought it was absolutely gutsy to bring murder charges against the Chandler cop [Dan Lovelace] who shot the lady at the pharmacy," McDonald continues. "It was courageous because Rick's political support base is law enforcement, and cops really stand behind their own. Even though the case was lost, I thought it was a great example of Romley putting principle above politics."

However, other attorneys say the Lovelace case provides a textbook example of Romley's bullheadedness in the face of a clear loser of a case.

But compared with other local law-and-order types, including his ultra-conservative successor Andrew Peyton Thomas, Rick Romley might qualify as -- gasp -- a blue-stater on some issues.

He's pro-choice, he led a fight for enhanced punishment for those convicted of "hate crimes," and he recognizes the gray areas in knotty cases such as child drownings.

On the downside, Romley has showed he can be temperamental and hypersensitive to perceived slights and divided loyalties. Some of the office's 350 attorneys say he was too distant as a boss, too stingy with the atta-boys, criticisms that he concedes are probably accurate.

Other people -- more from outside the office than in -- speak scornfully of the office's extensive policy manual, which dictates what prosecutors typically can and can't do in cases. That includes mandatory prison time for those who commit crimes with guns, unless a supervisor specifically approves a so-called "deviation."