Why do we elect these people?
Or better yet, why do we elect these positions?
Programming note: We won’t be publishing our morning email on Monday because of the government holiday. We’ll be back on Tuesday with the morning email and have some in-depth original reporting for you next week.
It’s been a wild year in Pima County’s justice court system.
In case you need a refresher: Justice courts are the ones you’re most likely to end up in. They’re run by “justices of the peace,” elected judges in each county who are often retired politicians padding their pensions and making healthy sums for a job that doesn’t require a law degree.
They handle things like traffic tickets, DUIs, misdemeanor crimes, small claims disputes and evictions. Each justice court district (Pima County has 10) also elects a constable, a quasi-cop who is responsible for serving paperwork for the court and, importantly, evicting people.
Justices of the peace and constables positions are relics from Arizona’s territorial days that still hold a lot of power. The requirements and training are minimal, and as independently elected officials, justices of the peace and constables have little oversight. They can’t really get fired, except in an election.
It’s a system rife for abuses — and Pima County has seen lots of them. The person deciding your future or throwing you out of your house could have a rap sheet of their own.
Out of Pima County Justice Court system’s 20 elected officers, one resigned as a convicted tax cheat,1 one shot at an unarmed man,2 one can’t carry a gun to the office because a female coworker has a restraining order,3 and another is a chronic criminal speeder who crashes cars and pees on trailers while serving papers.4
Oh, and the woman who was overseeing the courts is a drunk driver who’s in business with the tax cheat judge and who appears to have used her position to move her DUI case so the judges wouldn’t find out.5
Needless to say, all that crime and dysfunction really screwed up the court system.6
So what? Why are we rehashing all this weird old news from Pima County?
Every few years, a scandal pops up of such epic proportions in such an obscure elected office in Arizona (we’re looking at you, former Maricopa County Assessor/absentee employee/Medicaid fraudster/Marshallese baby smuggler Paul Petersen) that it causes the public to ask not only why do we elect these people, but why do we elect these positions?
And it seems Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is asking himself the same thing.
Huckelberry recently hired former Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier and tasked him with a comprehensive review of the constables (but not judges) in Pima County.
The memo Napier delivered showed some constables seem to hardly work, but get paid the same as the rest, and that they’re a bitterly fractured bunch.
But more importantly, there’s a deep divide in their eviction philosophies, with a “rigid faction,” mostly made up of retired law enforcement and a competing faction that “believes that reasonable steps to assist a person being evicted from their home are appropriate,” Napier wrote.
That divide is even reflected in their clothes, with the rigids dressing like “quasi-law enforcement” and the others dressing like “urban social workers.”
“The county should be concerned that our citizens being evicted from their homes are treated differently based on where they reside within boundaries on a map,” he wrote.
Napier proposed a host of reforms to the county’s constable system, including more balanced distribution of workload and more uniformity in appearance and approach to duties.
But the proposal didn’t go far enough for Huckelberry. In a memo Wednesday, he asked the county attorney to investigate whether the county can eliminate the constable positions as they come up for re-election and replace them with county employees who can do the job better, cheaper and with more accountability than independently elected officials.
“If so, I will be recommending that all of the elected constables be phased out and replaced with civil service employees at a cost significantly less than the present cost of compensating a constable at the rate of $67,000 annually, plus benefits.”
If not, he said, he’ll recommend eliminating the two justice court districts altogether — cutting two constables and two judges — in 2024, noting that the workload doesn’t justify having 10 districts for justices of the peace, either.
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Earlier this year, former lawmaker turned Pima County pension-padding Justice of the Peace Keith Bee pleaded guilty to tax fraud for claiming his Mustangs, Corvettes and Porsche were business expenses for his bus company, Bee Line Bus Transportation. (See what he did there?)
In February, Justice of the Peace Adam Waters fired a warning shot at an unarmed stalker/landlord/trash dumper who had been a plaintiff in his courtroom while threatening to “blow your fucking head right off.” (Yep, there’s cell phone video.) He wasn’t charged, and is still in the courtroom where we hear he flies a “don’t tread on me” flag.
George Camacho was fired as a deputy constable for sexual harassment and bullying, then got elected to become a constable in his own right last year (beating out former journalist Joe Ferguson). He lost his gun rights, but a judge then allowed him to carry a gun while working in the field (constables usually carry guns), so long as he didn’t take it into the constable’s office, where a woman he had worked with took out a restraining order against him. *CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article uses the wrong first name for Constable George Camacho.
Constable Oscar Vasquez peed on the side of someone’s trailer and threatened to taze their dog, parked in a handicapped space during constable training, repeatedly drove county cars faster than 100 miles per hour on streets (not highways) and smashed up so many county cars that county supervisors eventually took away the keys, though they were powerless to fire their fellow elected official. He won an uncontested re-election last year. He was later suspended for six months for refusing to evict someone during the pandemic, though his past problems played into the length of the suspension. Like several others, he’s a frequent flier on the official complaint list, having received complaints in fiscal years 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021.
Court Administrator Lisa Royal was Bee’s bus business partner in an arrangement that reeked of conflicted interests, and she resigned after a vote of no confidence from the Pima County justices of the peace (but before she could be technically fired) after the justices found out about her DUI arrest (which had conveniently been transferred to city court).
The “frayed relationships” Royal left behind put the court in such disarray that the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court stepped in and transferred administration of the Pima County Justice Court to the county’s superior court while ordering a review of the Justice court’s administrative operations.