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'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Qualifications for justices of the peace outdated, inadequate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.


                  Astonishing? Yes.


                  Fiction? No.


                  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                  recognized as outdated five decades ago.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



Salary structure for JPs is messy, ripe for abuse

System can rob taxpayers while still being unfair to some judges


                  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



                  Not one.


                  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

                  for reforms.


                  It's time taxpayers understood what's going on.