Even Without an Opponent, Leonore Driggs' Campaign for Justice of the Peace Raises Questions

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The old saw that there are only two ways to run for office — scared or unopposed — certainly applies in the Justice of the Peace race for the Arcadia Biltmore district, where first-time candidate Leonore Driggs is a shoo-in because she is the only one on the ballot for the position.

Driggs is the wife of outgoing state Senator Adam Driggs, a moderate GOPer whose father was the late, two-term Phoenix mayor John Driggs. If you live in that area of town, you may have seen the big road signs featuring a black-clad Leonore Driggs, an illustration of a judge's gavel dotting the "i" in her last name, and beneath that, the words "Justice of the Peace" and the slogan, "Experienced. Fair. Sound Judgement [sic]."

But some are questioning that "experienced" part, wondering about Driggs' qualifications for office and the way she is presenting herself in those signs and on her campaign website and Facebook page. One critic is her erstwhile Democratic rival Bretton Barber, whom Driggs, a Republican, managed to have booted off the ballot via the time-honored tactic of challenging his petition signatures. After a June challenge in superior court, Barber, a Phoenix defense attorney with a law degree from the University of Arizona, wound up short a few dozen signatures and withdrew his candidacy.

Initially, Sherwood Johnston III, a local real-estate consultant, was poised to run for Arcadia Biltmore JP in the Republican primary. But according to Elizabeth Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Recorder's Office, Johnston's signatures also were challenged by Driggs, and he, too, came up short (though his case didn't make it to superior court). 
A call to Johnston was not returned. But New Times did reach Barber, who thinks Driggs' signs and her website are misleading, and that Driggs does not have the résumé to be a JP.

"She has no legal training," Barber says. "I think it's misleading for her to state that she has experience, when she has no experience with the law."

Barber has other criticisms of Driggs' signs. For instance, he suggests that when seen from a distance, the black top Driggs is wearing in her street signs resembles a judge's gown.

"When someone looks at that sign, with her dressed [in what looks like] a judge's black robe, and it says, 'Experienced' — I think most people would think that's someone who either was a judge or is a lawyer," Barber says.

Driggs uses the same image on her website, driggsforjustice.com, and viewed there, it's obviously not a robe. (Then again, the photo on the website is placed against a backdrop of a judge's bench in an elegantly wood-paneled courtroom.)

Contacted for this story, Driggs tells New Times that it had not been her intention to mislead anyone. Rather, the blouse is a favorite, and she wore it because "black is slimming."

Asked about the word "experienced," she says it speaks to her overall life experience.

"I've worked in a small business," she explains, adding, "I did my boutique candy business [Twinkle Toes Toffee], which I still do. I was a teacher. I worked in a law practice. I'm a mother of five. I teach piano. I speak Spanish. So I have experiences, just in general — life in general."

Driggs says she worked in the Driggs Law Group, run by her husband and her brother-in-law. She also has done constituent-services work in U.S. Senator Jeff Flake's Phoenix office, and she has a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Arizona State University, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1999.
Driggs doesn't have a law degree, but as she now is running unopposed, she says she has been spending her time educating herself about the law, attending seminars on being a justice of the peace, and "shadowing" judges to learn more about her new gig. According to the website for the Arizona Association for Justices of the Peace, new JPs receive three weeks of training their first year on the job and 16 hours of training for each year after that.

Of course, you don't have to have any knowledge of the law to stand for JP. Justices of the peace need not be lawyers. In fact, if you are 18, a U.S. citizen, can read and write English, and are a resident of the district you're running in, you can be a JP, as long as you win the primary and the general election and can claim a pulse. The pay is good, about $101,500 per year on average, which explains why the partisan battles for the four-year terms are often hard fought.

Still, given that a JP presides over small claims, evictions, criminal misdemeanors, DUIs, orders of protection, and so on, a law degree certainly could be of use, and being a member of the bar signals to the voting public a certain level of legal competence. The outgoing justice of the peace for the Arcadia Biltmore district is Dean Wolcott, a former deputy county attorney who worked in both the civil and criminal divisions. Previously, Wolcott served as a JP pro-tem for the county, and in September 2015, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors appointed him JP of Arcadia Biltmore to fill a vacancy.

What about Driggs' signs? Are there any rules governing how and when judges can campaign?

Quite a few, actually.

The Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct addresses campaigning by judges and wannabe judges. And in 2010, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion concerning the use of judicial titles and robes in election campaigns. Basically, it states that only an incumbent judge running for re-election can wear a robe in campaign photos.

There are exceptions, but they do not apply to someone who has never been a judge. On the other hand, Driggs isn't wearing a robe in the photo, even if some might mistake it as such from a distance.

George Riemer, executive director of the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct, spoke with New Times for this story. He couldn't say whether or not the ACJC had received any complaints about Driggs, because ACJC investigations are confidential unless they result in a public reprimand or some other punishment.

Technically, the ACJC does not have authority over candidates who are not yet judges, Riemer says. But candidates must comply with the code of judicial conduct during the election, and can be held responsible after the fact if elected.

"When these sorts of things come to our attention, we may write the [candidate] a letter and say, here are the rules, it's been reported to us, you need to comply with the code, and should you be elected, this could be reviewed further, if it's construed as a potential violation," Riemer says.

Chandler election law attorney and legal ethics expert Tom Ryan thinks Driggs might have chalk on her shoes. That is, she may be on the line, but not over it.

"A less than auspicious start to a judicial career, I must say," he writes via e-mail, after we sent him photos of Driggs' signage. "For heaven's sake: She is currently unopposed. So why take the risk of unforced errors?! Black is slimming, puh-leeze. She's selling but I ain’t buying."

Barber, meanwhile, says he has lodged a complaint against Driggs, having to do with statements on her web page that she is "committed to being tough on crime" and is "especially sensitive to domestic violence and the threats it poses to women, children, and families."

Barber calls such comments "entirely inappropriate," claiming that judicial canons prohibit such campaign promises.

"You're not running for prosecutor," he says. "You're running for a job where you're supposed to be fair and impartial."

Another issue: Driggs has posted to her campaign Facebook page a photo of her with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Accompanying the photo is a quote from O'Connor, "Each of us brings to our job, whatever it is, our lifetime of experience."

Driggs says she posted the photo because O'Connor is a family friend and because she admires the ex-justice.

"She's an inspiration to me," Driggs explains. "So I put a picture and a quote that she said because I admire her. I guess, for me, she is a friend and she does support me. I haven't asked for her endorsement, but she does support me. I've talked with her on numerous occasions, and she said, 'Good for you, I'm glad you're running. Do a good job.'"

New Times contacted the Sandra Day O'Connor Institute in Phoenix to see if O'Connor could comment on the photo Driggs used, and received a call back from her son, Scott O'Connor, who spoke on behalf of his mother.

"This is not something mom was aware of, nor intentionally offered by way of endorsement," Scott O'Connor says. "Leonore put it up there, that's how it got there."

He says that because his mother, now 86, is retired from the judiciary, she's not held to the judicial canons restricting judges from campaigning for anyone other than themselves and therefore could endorse a candidate. But Driggs never asked.

He confirms that the Driggses and the O'Connors are indeed family friends. Adam Driggs' father, John Driggs, may have helped O'Connor get her seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, he adds: The story is that John Driggs was related to Mark Cannon, chief administrative assistant to Warren Burger, then-chief justice of the Supreme Court. John Driggs invited Cannon and Burger to vacation with him at Lake Powell in 1979, according to Scott O'Connor, because Driggs wanted to introduce Burger to Scott's parents in hopes that Sandra Day O'Connor, then an Arizona state court judge, might be nominated for the Supreme Court if and when Ronald Reagan was elected president.

"Burger took a strong liking to her," O'Connor said. "And he actually appointed her to an Anglo-American judicial-exchange conference in England. Right about that same time, Reagan took office. A few months later, [Supreme Court Justice] Potter Stewart announced his retirement, and boom!"

Interestingly, former Justice O'Connor long has been a supporter of the merit selection of judges, which was adopted as an amendment to the Arizona Constitution in 1974, doing away with the election of appellate judges and state Supreme Court judges, as well as superior court judges in Arizona's most populous counties. Nominating commissions now screen prospective judges and send a short list of the most qualified to the governor, who then makes the final pick to fill a seat. In Phoenix, municipal court judges are selected through similar panels and approved by the city council.

Still, the system leaves open the election of judges in less-populated counties. And the election of justices of the peace, which predates statehood and is part of Arizona's 1912 constitution, persists, despite periodic calls for reform. Indeed, the very title seems an anachronism, conjuring images from the 1972 biopic The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, starring Paul Newman in the title role as the legendary Texas JP and "Law West of the Pecos," holding trials in saloons with a brass spittoon close at hand, and dispensing summary judgment to Old West outlaws and scalawags.

Because the four-year JP positions are subject to the vagaries of politics, the most qualified person for the job does not always prevail. One wonders what would have happened in the Arcadia Biltmore district if Barber had not had his signatures challenged by an election-law attorney working on behalf of Driggs. Or if Barber had a few dozen more valid signatures on his petitions.

(Driggs says her husband, Adam, did most of the legal work for the challenge, combing through Barber's petitions name by name, though attorney Tim LaSota brought the actual court claim. Driggs' campaign-finance records show that she paid her husband $4,000 for the work. Driggs tells New Times that she and her husband had loaned her campaign money, so paying Driggs was a way to "recoup" some of it.)

Yet sometimes, the best man or woman for the job does win.

Recently, New Times highlighted a Republican primary contest for JP in north Phoenix between former state representative and Tea Party fave Carl Seel and newcomer Andrew Hettinger. Seel's time as a legislator mostly was taken up with hating on illegal immigrants and challenging President Obama's birth certificate. Unlike Seel, Hettinger is an attorney, who clerked for federal Judge G. Murray Snow and worked as a mediator for Pinal County.

In other words, Hettinger had the experience that matched the job. He handily won his primary contest by a margin of more than two to one, burying Seel, 4,933 votes to 2,361 in the Moon Valley JP district. Hettinger is unopposed in the general election, so he now is a JP-elect, and should be thanked for sparing the public the ordeal of seeing the clownish Seel clad in a judge's black robe.

In part due to such close calls, many in the legal profession, Ryan among them, believe that being a lawyer should be a prerequisite to becoming a JP.

"I know it is anathema to the right-wing crazies, but justice of the peace should be someone with a law degree," Ryan says. "You could not be a city court judge without a law degree, so why grant so much power to a person who has no meaningful background in law?"

Update November 2 11:19 A.M.: Scott O'Connor contacted New Times today, leaving the following message via voicemail.

"I wanted to tell you that my mom is happy to endorse Leonore Driggs for Justice of the Peace, and she thought that you'd go ahead and publish a story about this little quibble was terrible on your part. Her words, terrible."

Update November 2 6:55 PM: Scott Davis, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Justice Courts, writes via email that Maricopa County supplements the 2-3 weeks of state training mentioned in the article with "at least 2-3 months of mentoring with an experienced judge." He adds that the county offers extra classes to supplement the state training, and there is a full-time education officer on hand to answer questions from JPs.