Gila County's entire slate of part-time, temporary judges along with 10 others across the state have lost their jobs as the result of a reorganization effort by Arizona's chief justice.
Charles E. Jones has ruled that the state constitution required such jurists, or judges pro-tem, to be licensed members of the Arizona State Bar.
None of the three temporary judges who have been released by Gila County Presiding Judge Robert Duber Dorothy Little and Jim Weeks of Payson, and Rebecca Baeza of Globe-Miami qualify to keep their positions under the Jones' ruling, which was part of a sweeping overhaul of the state's municipal and justice court system.
"I have a lot of trouble with this, because I just don't read the law" as Jones and Duber see it, said Gila County District One Supervisor Ron Christensen last week. "The law is very explicit; it does not say that (a temporary judge) has to be a licensed attorney or someone who has passed the bar. It says they 'may' have those qualifications.
"If Jones' reading is the reality, every county in the whole state of Arizona has been doing it wrong," Christensen said. "And all the rest of the counties have said, 'We'll wait for an administrative order.' So I think there's some politics involved in this."
A further problem, the supervisor observed, will be finding licensed lawyers "willing to give up their practices in exchange for the very small salary that a temporary judge gets. I don't see that happening. If this ruling prevails, it's going to be difficult to meet that challenge."
Christensen said he is also perplexed by the fact that the temporary judges "haven't been terminated; they've been sent home, so they're getting paid for doing nothing. That doesn't make any sense to me. We're going to try to get it resolved this week. It doesn't make any sense to me to do it this way. In the meantime, Judge Ronnie McDaniel's court is jammed."
What the dismissals mean for Rim country residents who use the county's courts is a system slowdown and the potential increase in the number of backlogged cases.
"The reason we haven't been behind in caseloads is because we've had the assistance of the two pro-tem judges," McDaniel said.
"I think (the ruling) affects the rural areas more than the metropolitan areas, because there's not a lot of attorneys available who don't practice," McDaniel's former judge pro-tem, Dorothy Little, said. "At the current time, I think their service is going to be a lot slower. In instances where Judge McDaniel can't hear a case for some reason, we'll have to find another judge from somewhere who is able to travel here to hear that case. So there will be some lag time on specific cases.
"And while Judge McDaniel is on the bench," Little said, "individuals are going to have to wait for orders of protection or those complaints and summonses which need to be signed by a judge."
Until Jones' ruling, judges pro-tem were appointed by each county's superior court presiding judge under recommendation of the justice of the peace. Bearing the same authority as the justice of the peace, the temporary judges served under six-month or two-year term contracts.
In Gila County, the decision to move forward without the administrative order was made by Duber, who acknowledged that the loss of the temporary judges will slow down Gila County's courts.
"This is going to affect everybody in the state of Arizona," Duber said. "Without pro-tems, there will be some delays in processing cases. The work they were doing will have to be done by the justices of the peace."
There are other potential pitfalls, too, including the possibility that those who have had their cases tried by the dismissed judges who have now been deemed to have no legal authority will clog the county's courts with appeals.
"What you're doing is opening the door of appeal for every judgment (the temporary judges) have made," Christensen said. "That could put a load on the courts that would bog everything down."
Duber, however, expects that the judges' dismissals "may result in one or two people trying that, but I don't expect it to be a problem."
With the approval of the Gila County Board of Supervisors, the county could hire attorneys to act as temporary judges on a case-by-case or day-by-day basis, Duber said, "but right now, I don't know what the board is going to do."
For the moment, Christensen knows exactly what he is going to do.
"We are going to be discussing this whole thing with Judge Duber, so maybe we can get the issue resolved and get on with our business," Christensen said. "You can't have a law that violates the constitution, and in my view, that's what this ruling does. I don't pretend to be an expert at law, but I can read what it says and I just don't see what Jones and Duber see.
"I would welcome Justice Jones making this an administrative order other than an opinion, because then it could be appealed. But right now, the whole issue is in limbo."
According to a spokesperson for Gila County Administrator Steve Besich, Duber was scheduled to discuss the issue with the county supervisors at this morning's (Tuesday) meeting. Details of that encounter will be covered in Friday's Roundup.