News

Sitting Petty

Justice may be blind, but it's certainly not deaf. At least not in the courtroom of Phoenix Municipal Court Judge Chris Kramer.

Last week, Kramer sentenced Bonnie Scherer to 24 hours in Madison Street Jail for talking back. Scherer, 21, is seven months pregnant and a single mother of a 4-year-old.

Now, she's wondering why she was forced to spend the night in jail just for trying to make a judge understand her plight.

Scherer was in court voluntarily, seeking to get her suspended driver's license reinstated. Earlier this month, she had been cited for expired tags, having no insurance, and driving with a suspended license. Scherer was hoping to convince the court to grant her a provisionary license so she could take her 4-year-old to preschool and get to her job at Blockbuster Video.

"I've been on and off welfare for three years," explains Scherer. "I just got off welfare and I want to stay off. But how am I going to get my daughter to school? It's like eight bucks for a cab ride."

Kramer first sent her to the Motor Vehicle Division. Scherer says that after waiting more than an hour to be helped, she was sent back to plead her case to the judge.

Frustrated because she'd been given the runaround, Scherer was in no mood to listen to the judge. Kramer, it seems, was equally impatient.

Their conversation quickly degenerated into a confrontation.
"I don't want to be a welfare mother for the rest of my life," Scherer said to Kramer, according to an official court tape of the session. "You're pushing me back down into the system. . . ."

"No, wait a minute," Kramer said, interrupting her and raising his voice. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I didn't get the ticket. You got the ticket."

"Don't start yelling at me," said Scherer. "I'm not yelling at you."
The system's not at fault, Kramer lectured.
Interrupting, Scherer tried to explain what had happened.
"All right, shut up," an annoyed Kramer said.
"Don't tell me to shut up," Scherer countered.

Scherer and her two friends, Machelle Cherry and Stacy Sceber, started for the door.

"You're not going to leave. Don't walk out that door. I'm giving you a direct judicial order," Kramer said. "You walk out that door, you're in contempt of court. Not another word. Get over here and sit down."

Kramer told a member of his staff to call court services. He calmly breezed through two other cases, then returned his attention to Scherer.

He found her in contempt of court. "You argued with me about what I was trying to tell you. You interrupted me after I told you to be quiet. You continued to mouth off. You walked away from me when I told you not to leave. You continued to be defiant and disruptive in my courtroom, and I do not tolerate that.

"Is there anything you'd like to say before I pass sentence?" he added.
"Yes, sir," Scherer said. "I didn't know it was a judicial right to tell a person to 'shut up,' not 'be quiet.' If you would have asked me 'please be quiet, I'm trying to explain myself,' I would have."

By then, an obviously scared Scherer was in tears. She tried to apologize. "I'm very sorry, sir," she sobbed.

Kramer had no sympathy.
"You are the architect of your own misfortune," Kramer told the distraught woman. "You're in my courtroom. You do not direct comments . . . where other people in my courtroom can hear them."

Kramer also ordered Scherer's friend to leave the courtroom. "Get out, while you still can," he told Machelle Cherry.

Then he took a 10-minute break before he passed sentence on Scherer.
"You have been found in contempt of court for your conduct during the course of these proceedings," Kramer told Scherer. "Specifically, the conduct caused a loss in respect and decorum of the court. And you were warned to stop and you didn't stop. Punishment is going to be held immediately because prompt punishment is imperative in this case.

"I gave you the chance to mitigate your sentence earlier and apologize. And essentially what you said to me was that you did not think that I had the authority to order you to behave yourself in my court or direct your behavior in my court. I'm going to disabuse you of that notion now."

Scherer was handcuffed and put in the holding cell at Madison Street Jail. She says there were about 30 other women in the cell with her; they had to share three metal bunks.

It was her first time in jail.
"The toilet and water fountain were disgusting," she says. "There were no blankets or pillows. People were using shoes or wads of toilet paper for pillows."

Her night in jail cost the taxpayers about $83.79, according to Dave Trombe, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Scherer says she will file a complaint against Kramer with the Commission of Judicial Conduct. Commission chairman Keith Stott says that any complaint is investigated, and then a panel of 11 members (six judges, three public members and two attorneys) decides the judge's fate. That could range from a warning, reprimand or counseling to a judge's removal.

Kramer, who has been a pro tem, or fill-in, judge since July 1996, refused to talk to New Times about why he put a pregnant, single mother in an already overcrowded jail. Court Staff Attorney Kevin Kane says that "it would be inappropriate for [Kramer] to comment on a case that can still be appealed."

Scherer's case will be difficult to win since judges have broad authority over their courtrooms. According to Kane, a judge is allowed to remove or detain individuals in his court, and contempt charges are left to the judge's discretion. A judge also has the power to levy a fine, or impose community service if the defendant is unable to pay the fine.

However, Kramer may be in trouble for his choice of words and--from the tone of the tape--allowing himself to be drawn into a childish spat. Under Canon 3 of the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct:

"A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity, and shall require similar conduct of lawyers, and of staff, court officials and others subject to the judge's direction and control."

Contact Matthew Doig at his online address: [email protected]