Gila County Attorney James Hazel was selected Friday by Arizona Governor Jane Hull to serve as the county's newest superior court judge replacing retiring Superior Court Judge Edd Dawson and acing out fired county commissioner David Colby, who with two other attorneys was vying for Hull's nod of approval.
"Jim Hazel will be a wonderful addition to the Gila County Superior Court," Hull said. "His experience as a certified criminal law specialist will be a great benefit to him as a judge."
Hazel, a 40-year-old resident of Pine, won the appointment over Payson attorney David Colby, who two weeks ago was fired from his position as Gila County Commissioner, as well as Globe attorneys Mark Gunning and Peter J. Cahill.
"I'm very grateful that the governor showed enough trust in me to appoint me to the position," Hazel said Monday. "It was a difficult decision ... but I thought I did a good interview, and obviously she thought I was the most qualified."
Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen was also pleased with Hazel's appointment.
"I think the governor picked a qualified individual," Christensen said. "She stayed with the same party and the same area of the county ... And I'm sure he'll do a good job."
Hazel's term will begin early next month. However, because just one year remains of Dawson's three-year term, his position will be opened to election in Nov. 2002, at which time Hazel will have to defend his selection in the voting booth.
According to Christensen, whomever the board of supervisors appoints to replace Hazel as county attorney will also have to win his or her seat in the November election.
Hull's decision has been anticipated with unusual interest in northern Gila County ever since Nov. 29, when Colby was terminated by Gila County Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Duber for remarks the commissioner made in the Nov. 27 edition of the Roundup.
In that interview, Colby said he was seeking the judgeship to end the "unfair treatment" of northern Gila County by those in the county's Globe power seat, and that he was more qualified than others who were then said to be seeking the position.
"I'm hoping that this may reduce some of the angry language that people have chosen to use," Duber said of Hazel's appointment. "Maybe we can work together instead of competing all the time."
Hazel is the first Republican to be elected to office in Gila County. According to Arizona law, the supervisors' appointed judge had to be a person of the same political party as the person vacating the office. Dawson, too, is Republican.
Hazel, the married father of five, received his Bachelor's degree in history from the College of Wooster, Ohio, and his law degree from the University of Toledo. Prior to being elected county attorney, he was a sole practitioner. He also served as a judge pro tempore for the City of Phoenix Municipal Court.
The Gila County Board of Supervisors will begin the process of filling the vacancy in the office of county attorney upon Hazel's yet-to-be-decided resignation date.
"I think (Hazel) will have to go to the presiding judge and work out the details of (his resignation)," Christensen said, "because I'm sure there are some cases pending right now that the county attorney is involved in that might be in conflict with his previous job. But that is something (Hazel) and the judge will have to work out."
As to the process of finding and appointing a new county attorney, Christensen said he is now conferring with Gila County Administrator Steve Besich regarding "what procedures we want to take.
"The last time we did this," the supervisor said, "we took the resumes of a variety of practicing attorneys in the county who were interested in the job, and then we set up a public interview aspect of it; they appeared before the board of supervisors, and we had the opportunity to ask them about their backgrounds, their qualifications and their management skills because it's a huge budget and a lot of people about 9 in Payson and 9 in Globe to manage in the county attorney's office."
Another consideration, Christensen said, will be the applicants' "philosophies toward civil and criminal cases; some attorneys like to plea-bargain and some are very aggressive prosecutors and so forth and so on."
The timeline for the process is precisely as long as that for Hazel's transition from county attorney to judge.
"We'd have to have somebody in there by the time Jim takes the superior court position next month or very shortly thereafter," Christensen said.