'People's courts' deserve better
Qualifications for justices of the peace outdated, inadequate
Nov. 25, 2001
Help wanted: Men or women needed to dispense justice. No experience
necessary. Good pay. The successful applicant will preside over preliminary
hearings on criminal felony cases; rule on civil cases up to $10,000; handle small
claims such as homeowner association disputes; grant orders of protection when
domestic violence is alleged; handle criminal misdemeanors and traffic cases.
Must be at least 18 years old, a resident of Arizona and able to read and write
English. No background check or references necessary. Those interested in
joining this group of highly paid elected officials should apply to voters.
Arizona's qualifications for justice of the peace don't begin to reflect the
importance of the job.
During the past fiscal year, justice courts processed 854,028 filings, which
represents 35 percent of the entire court caseload in Arizona, according to the
Supreme Court. Justice courts collected nearly $50 million dollars in revenue.
The average person is more likely to come in contact with one of these courts of
limited jurisdiction than any other court. The quality of justice he or she receives
is not only of great personal concern, it will also leave a lasting impression about
the entire third branch of government.
If she's lucky, she won't get a judge who's engaged in criminal misconduct.
Or prone to doze off on the bench.
Or given to making fun of people's names.
If he's lucky, he'll get one of the many hard-working, honest and careful justices
of the peace who serve in Arizona.
But justice should not depend on luck.
Arizona's justice courts should not be built on judicial qualifications that were
recognized as outdated five decades ago.
Since 1952, seven major court reform studies recommended changes to the
state's justice courts. But not much changed.
The qualifications to become a justice of the peace remain at rock bottom.
Those who oppose raising the qualifications offer an appealing and misleading
argument. They say JP courts are the people's courts, and therefore these courts
should be accessible to everyone. That means, they say, JP courts should be run
with common sense by average people.
In truth, all courts should be the people's courts, and all courts should be
accessible to all people. That's the promise of America's justice system. In truth,
education, experience and a felony-free background do not negate common
sense. They enhance it.
In today's complex world, a judge dealing with a $9,999 legal dispute had better
bring more than good sense to the decision-making process. The stakes are high:
the result could ruin a family financially. In today's violent world, a judge deciding
whether to issue an order of protection had better be making the decision based
on facts and the law. The stakes are even higher: victims of domestic violence can
be in mortal danger.
Judges - all judges - need to understand the law. They need to know the
importance of basing their decisions on the law, not their personal views or
opinions. Education won't ensure that, but it helps.
Other courts of limited jurisdiction have evolved far beyond justice of the peace
courts. Municipal courts, which are run by cities to deal with violations of city
ordinances, insist on judicial qualifications that reflect the importance of the job.
In most Arizona cities with municipal courts, the judges are chosen by the city
council based on qualifications outlined in the city ordinance. In Phoenix, these
judges must be lawyers.
Municipal courts are people's courts, too. But here, people have a reasonable
expectation that the judge is qualified.
Ironically, municipal judges generally have to measure up to a higher standard,
but justices of the peace have more jurisdictional authority.
In addition to an understanding of the law, higher standards could help ensure
that justices of the peace realize the importance of a strict code of conduct.
Statistics and individual cases (see accompanying box) argue convincingly that
too many of them don't.
In the 30 years the Arizona Supreme Court's Commission on Judicial Conduct
has been responding to complaints about judges, there have been 45 cases
where it found reason to bring formal charges against a judge. Twenty-seven of
those cases were against justices of the peace. Two of the three judges removed
from the bench in the past 30 years were justices of the peace. Two other
justices of the peace recently resigned after felony convictions.
Justices of the peace do an important job. The qualifications to become a justice
of the peace should reflect that.
TOMORROW: Why merit selection makes sense for justices of the
Picking JPs on merit is only sane approach
Qualifications, not slogans and back-slapping, should be criteria
Nov. 26, 2001
Arizona is of two minds when it comes to selecting judges.
One is sane, sensible and nationally recognized as wise.
The other is pure politics.
Moving the selection of justices of the peace in Pima and Maricopa counties into
the sane category would be a major improvement in the state's judicial system.
The sane approach is merit selection. Under it, judges on the Appeals Court and
the Supreme Court and Superior Court judges in Pima and Maricopa Counties
are appointed from a qualified pool of candidates. In this system, an independent
panel identifies several candidates who meet high standards of education and
professionalism. The governor appoints a judge from among those names.
The person who takes the bench understands the job and has the training and
temperament to do it.
The political approach applies to justices of the peace statewide and Superior
Court judges in the rural counties. In this system, the woman or man who can
raise the most money, make the best-sounding campaign slogans and back-slap
most effectively gets the black robe.
The one who wins the bench will be a successful politician, but that individual
may lack the understanding, education or temperament to do the job.
A merit-selected judge isn't beholden to those who finance his or her campaigns.
Elected judges may find themselves presiding over cases involving people whose
contributions helped put them into office. The potential for conflict - and
corruption - is considerably greater.
The best solution would be to choose all the state's judges through merit
selection. Rural counties have not chosen to take that option, but they should
strongly consider it.
Pima and Maricopa counties would make a large and consistent leap toward a
better judiciary by requiring merit selection for justices of the peace.
The current system would have to be modified to reflect the more local nature of
Justice Courts. A widely hailed 1995 study into how to improve courts of limited
jurisdiction suggested that the presiding Superior Court judge of each county
head a county merit selection panel. Under this proposal, panel members would
be appointed by members of the Pima or Maricopa county Boards of
Supervisors and the state Bar Association.
The panels would identify qualified individuals who demonstrated the kind of
common sense and understanding of the legal system essential for good judges.
Justices of the peace would be appointed from this group.
Voters would still have a say. A simplified retention system, similar to the one
currently in use for appointed judges, would provide an independent evaluation of
a judge's performance. During periodic retention elections, voters would use that
information to determine whether a justice of the peace should be remain on the
The recommendations of this study committee, which was appointed by
then-Chief Justice Stanley Feldman and headed by Martin Shultz, provide a good
place to begin to structure a merit selection system for justices of the peace.
The proposals in that report, which are far broader and more far reaching than
simply moving to merit selection for justices of the peace, were met with
enthusiasm by most members of the judiciary. Several bills were drafted to
achieve the improvements.
Politics stopped the bills and the momentum for change.
It's time to get it moving again.
Justice Charles Jones, who will become the chief justice in January, has indicated
an interest in doing just that. He deserves strong support from other judges,
lawmakers, the Governor's Office and the business community.
The reform should take the politics out of the selection of lower court judges in
the state's two most populous counties. It's the sane and sensible thing to do.
TOMORROW: Why salary reform makes sense for justices of the
Nov. 27, 2001
Taxpayers who sign paychecks for the state's 83
justices of the peace have a right to expect a simple
and easy-to-understand salary schedule.
Instead they have a system characterized as a "beast"
by Arizona Chief Justice Thomas Zlacket. A system
that provides a "perverse incentive," says Martin
Shultz, who chaired a committee to reform the lower
The Shultz committee's 1995 report said justice of the
peace salaries "are set by a complex formula that is
susceptible to inaccuracy and abuse." Recommended
reforms didn't happen then. They should happen now.
That statutory formula for paying justices of the peace
puts their salaries within a range of 25 percent to 70
percent of a superior court judge's pay, which is
$120,750. A JP earning the maximum salary would
get in excess of $84,000 a year. But JPs also make
money performing marriage ceremonies. In addition,
some JPs simultaneously serve as municipal court
judges and get a separate salary for that. Superior
Court judges are prohibited from getting paid in two
The determination of what percentage of a Superior
Court judge's salary a JP gets is made with
"productivity credits" that a judge earns for the cases
filed in his or her courtroom. A judge with enough
credits gets the full 70 percent.
But the statute does not say that's a full-time salary,
and a justice of the peace earning maximum salary
could take another job and leave pro tem judges to do
the work in justice court. That's happened in the past,
says David Byers of the Administrative Office of the
Courts. He says the statute addresses how many
cases are filed, not how many a JP actually hears.
The fact that "incorrect reporting of case filings can
erroneously increase or decrease salaries" was cited
by the Shultz commission as one reason to reform the
salary system. Another reason was that the current
system, in effect, links judges' salaries to law
enforcement activity. A police chief who wanted to
hurt a justice of the peace could set a speed trap on
either edge of that JP's jurisdiction, depriving the JP of
cases that would ordinarily be filed in his or her court -
and possibly lowering the judge's pay.
This messy system for setting pay was devised as a
way of fairly compensating both urban JPs, who
handle a great many cases, and rural ones, who are
generally not as busy. Some method of balancing
those differing workloads is needed. The current
system is clearly not the best way.
That's why reforming it was among the 38
recommendations made in the comprehensive and
highly praised report issued by the Shultz commission.
Five bills outlining reform of the lower courts landed in
the Legislature as a result of that effort. None of them
It is in the best interest of Arizona residents that some
of those proposals be revised and returned to
lawmakers. Six years of inaction and a growing
rogues' gallery of bad-boy JPs add urgency to the call
It's time taxpayers understood what's going on.