The State Bar of Arizona is investigating Gila County’s chief deputy attorney for possibly violating the rules of professional conduct.
The investigation likely stems from an April hearing when Shawn Fuller walked out of Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill’s courtroom after the two got into a disagreement about a case. Cahill later held Fuller in contempt of court. However, after Fuller apologized, Cahill purged the order.
Recently, someone filed a complaint with the State Bar. The State Bar does not reveal the names of people who lodge a complaint.
Rick DeBruhl, chief communications officer with the State Bar of Arizona, said complaints come from a host of places including citizens and those involved with a case. Bar investigators themselves can open a complaint if they learn of possible impropriety.
During a case hearing in April, longstanding tensions between Fuller and Cahill boiled over. Some six weeks before the scheduled start of the trial, Fuller asked Cahill for an extension to have an expert determine if the defendant was legally insane. The defendant in the case was accused of trying to kill two people with an ax and setting fire to a home in late 2011. The man was later convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. Fuller had recommended a sentence of nearly 43 years.
An exchange between Cahill and Fuller culminated in the prosecutor walking out of the courtroom.
County Attorney Bradley Beauchamp was present during the confrontation and initially tried to settle things down. But Beauchamp later told the Roundup that he instructed Fuller to leave the court to head off the confrontation.
Beauchamp declined comment on the Bar investigation, but said he might file his own complaint about Cahill with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Review.
A Bar investigator is looking into the complaint against Fuller. The Bar receives about 4,000 inquiries a year and typically investigates about 1,000, DeBruhl said.
People sometimes complain about frivolous things like a lawyer/neighbor parking in front of their home. Bar staff dismissed that complaint. However, if a complaint passes the “smell test,” an investigation ensues.
The Probable Cause Committee of the Supreme Court of Arizona reviews the complaint and determines if there is enough evidence to go forward. The committee is made up of six volunteer attorneys and three volunteer citizens. Former Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores sits on that committee, but didn’t participate due to a possible conflict of interest, since Beauchamp beat Flores last year in the race for county attorney.
On Nov. 8, the committee found probable cause existed. The complaint now sits with the State Bar’s Report of Investigation and Recommendation and a member of the Bar counsel is looking into the case. Investigations usually last about a month, but can last much longer in complex cases, like that against former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
During this, the formal complaint process, DeBruhl said negotiations typically take place, similar to the plea agreement process. If the lawyers can come to an agreement on a punishment or resolution, the case will not go forward.
“In a perfect world they come to an agreement before it goes to a hearing,” DeBruhl said. “Up until the hearing starts there can be a point where a punishment is accepted.”
If the lawyers don’t reach an agreement, the hearing goes forward before a three-person board made up of a presiding disciplinary judge, a lawyer and a member of the public. As in a trial, both sides present their case and present witnesses. The hearing is open to the public.
Then the panel decides if the lawyer violated the rules of professional conduct and hands down a verdict and sentence. Both the State Bar and defendant can appeal that decision to the Supreme Court of Arizona.
According to a transcript obtained by the Roundup, the exchange between Cahill and Fuller grew heated.
The confrontation sharpened when Fuller interrupted a discussion between Cahill and a defense lawyer about whether the court, the defense and the prosecution could each have their own experts to determine whether the defendant was insane. Fuller objected that Cahill couldn’t do what he was considering.
“Now, just hold on,” Cahill said, according to a court transcript. “Can’t you just get a grip on yourself? Can’t you be polite to one judge? Can’t you do that?”
“I’m out, I’m out, I’m out,” Fuller replied before walking out of the courtroom.
Beauchamp jumped in. “OK. Hold on. Hold on. I will take over.”
Cahill called out, “And, sir, — just a second. Fuller.”
Fuller walked back in and said “First of all, it’s Mr. Fuller, judge.”
“Mr. Fuller, you were outside the courtroom, that’s why I needed to get your attention right away. You sit down,” Cahill said.
Beauchamp interjected, “I’ve got it.”
Cahill continued to Fuller, “You have got to learn polite, basic kindergarten manners.”
The discussion returned to the complicated issue of legal experts. Later in the hearing Cahill chastised Fuller and Beauchamp for speaking while he was talking.
Beauchamp told the Roundup last week that he told Fuller to leave the courtroom.