Around here, there’s lately been something of a minor tempest in the judicial finger bowl because another Arizona justice of the peace has gotten himself into hot water. And it’s not even hot enough around here yet to match the heat in Satan’s crotch like it is six months out of every year.
Nonetheless, the heat’s on for at least one judge, a justice of the peace. In Arizona, all that’s required to preside over preliminary hearings on criminal felony cases; rule on money disputes up to $10,000; resolve small claims under $2,500; grant protective orders in domestic violence cases; issue search warrants in felony matters; handle criminal misdemeanors punishable by a fine not exceeding $2,500–exclusive of surcharges– or imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed six months; adjudicate traffic cases and hear forcible detainer tenant evictions – – – is that you be at least 18 years old, an Arizona resident and able to read and write English.
It’s a breathtaking scope of responsibilities when those are the only qualifications to run for a job that pays over $100,000 per year. High school diploma? Why bother when you can make that kind of dough? Why, more’s required to be a water meter reader or manage a golf course or work as a sous chef/kitchen manager.
Of course, setting the qualification bar this low originates from the quaint but unsettling anachronistic conceit of ‘the People’s Court.’ But even Judge Joseph Wapner on that “People’s Court“ had undergraduate and law degrees and had actually been a judge for 20 years before presiding on T.V.
Back in the day, there was a basis for imposing virtually no qualifications besides being sentient. Especially in the Old West, where snakes and scorpions outnumbered residents, trained, educated legal types were hard to come by. This was the basis for laws that eventually set population thresholds to trigger higher qualifications.
In Nevada, for example, NRS 4.010(2) requires that “A justice of the peace must have a high school diploma or its equivalent as determined by the State Board of Education and: (a) In a county whose population is 700,000 or more, a justice of the peace in a township whose population is 100,000 or more must be an attorney who is licensed and admitted to practice law in the courts of this State at the time of his or her election or appointment and has been licensed and admitted to practice law in the courts of this State, another state or the District of Columbia for not less than 5 years at any time preceding his or her election or appointment. (b) In a county whose population is less than 700,000, a justice of the peace in a township whose population is 250,000 or more must be an attorney who is licensed and admitted to practice law in the courts of this State at the time of his or her election or appointment and has been licensed and admitted to practice law in the courts of this State, another state or the District of Columbia for not less than 5 years at any time preceding his or her election or appointment.”
So for the past several weeks, including last Saturday, thanks to the case of Phillip Woolbright, Arrowhead Justice of the Peace, the local press and other longtime critics have been up in arms over the longstanding system of selecting statewide justices of the peace in Arizona. Like many of the state’s justices of the peace, Woolbright is not a lawyer. He was elected in 2010 and has a background in computer chip design and in part-time preaching.
Not that requiring judges to be lawyers is a cure for misconduct. Last year, for example, there was the case in Tucson of lawyer and municipal court judge, the Honorable Theodore Abrams censured and permanently enjoined from again serving as an Arizona judge for sexually harassing a defense attorney.
Still, do you think the JP qualifications might be raised just a tad more given the life, liberty, and economic interests involved? But inexplicably, instead of rallying for improved justice court qualifications, The Arizona Republic takes the tortured leap into the dish water by hand-wringing out a prescription that of all things – – – merit selection’s the cure for what ails the process arguing that that’s the way to “Keep politics out of JP selection.”
Huh? Politics? The reason Judge Woolbright got into trouble last year with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct wasn’t over politics in JP Selection. But when you’re wearing horse blinders, the road ahead always goes to merit selection. To its credit, though, the newspaper’s editorial writers did reluctantly admit that Judge Woolbright’s case was “more about ethics and personal conduct than competence.”
At least they got that part right. The case was over misconduct stemming from Judge Woolbright trying to dodge a process-server serving an order of protection in a family law case involving his estranged wife. The good judge then exacerbated matters by trying to coerce a court manager into telling authorities a different story.
And in a bit of unsurprising judicial chutzpah, Judge Woolbright was faulted for continuing to hear orders of protection – – – even though he was being served with one himself following an altercation with his wife. He also faces a criminal misdemeanor charge for violating the protection order.
In its report, disciplinary counsel noted, “The nature of the misconduct at issue involves deception, abuse of judicial authority, failure to disqualify, and allowing personal and family circumstances to influence judicial conduct.” See Complete Formal Record Filed With the Court 12-23-11
Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court sent back the ethics case for review saying it was because of the criminal misdemeanor charges filed against the jurist. But methinks it may also be due to complaints (including from some of his peers) that Judge Woolbright’s discipline “smacks of judges protecting judges” and threatens the fundamental integrity of the judicial system, to wit, it was a consent agreement, which allows Judge Woolbright to keep his job but imposes a 60-day suspension without pay, anger-management classes, ethics training and an assigned judicial mentor. Also see “Our View: Harsher punishment needed for JP Woolbright.”
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