PHOENIX, AZ -- On Monday at a quarter past noon, local lawyers will convene on the Central Courthouse steps to demonstrate against Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the chief prosecutor of the fourth most populous county in the country.
Thomas, along with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, filed a suit against nearly all of his political foes and indicted a handful on criminal charges. Arpaio is the famous Arizona sheriff known as "America's Toughest Sheriff" for his hard-nosed stance against immigration lawbreakers and his tent-based jails. He and Thomas have worked hand-in-hand to curb illegal immigration and human trafficking, which has earned them staunch enemies and allies.
Thomas and Arpaio allege that much of the county government, including the judiciary system, is mired in corruption and conspiracy. The inclusion of local judges in the RICO suit, criminal investigations, and indictments made national headlines and earned sharp rebukes from many usual allies of Thomas and Arpaio.
Lawyers coordinating Monday's demonstration want to be clear, "We are not a group of political opponents." The protest was sparked, they say, by the persecution of local judges. Shawn Aiken, a lawyer helping coordinate the demonstration, explains in an email to HuffPost that many in the legal community believe the sanctity and independence of the judiciary is at stake:
The issue has become this: may the county attorney file a criminal complaint against a judge for having issued routine, conventional rulings? We have seen attacks against judges before, over many years, in this country -- Judge Carl Muecke, for example, and others have been targets here in Arizona -- for nothing more than having done their (important) job. But Mr. Thomas has now taken (as far as I know) an unprecedented step in filing this felony complaint against Judge Donahoe.
The Arizona Republic Editorial Board, who has penned several editorials on the situation, wrote this week, "If Thomas and Arpaio are wrong about the existence of such a massive conspiracy, they are themselves guilty of an assault on the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Maricopa County."
Defense lawyers have begun filing motions to disqualify the Maricopa County Attorney's Office from prosecuting cases on the grounds that a conflict of interest exists when a judge hearing a case could be under investigation by the office prosecuting the case. Defense attorneys argue that judges could be afraid to rule against Thomas for fear they, too, could be implicated. Some legal observers fear convictions could later be overturned based on the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"Some judges are afraid," Denise Quinterri, a local defense attorney who is in the process of filing charges against Thomas with the Bar, told HuffPost, "Let's face it, who wouldn't be? This adds an entirely unfair burden to their already difficult job. The public smearing of the judiciary causes a lack of faith in the system which hurts the entire county, the state, and perhaps this country."
According to the Quinterri, Aiken, and other lawyers organizing the protest, Thomas has violated legal ethical rules when he included Judge Gary Donahoe and Judge Barbara Mundell in the RICO suit and filed felony charges against Donahoe.
Under the bleating headline, "Is there no one who will stand up to Thomas, Arpaio?" the Arizona Republic Editorial Board pleaded this week for the governor and attorney general to step in, calling Arpaio "the Toughest Backwater Sheriff in America" and calling the pair "bullies with badges." The Board opined that Arpaio and Thomas "have decided to leverage their political popularity - which is to say, Joe Arpaio's electoral popularity - against the institutional strength of their opponents."
Lawyers coordinating the protest contend that Thomas should have followed protocol by filing appeals through the judicial system or filing a conduct complaint and waiting for the result, "If he is unsuccessful, then he should either accept that or investigate further and prepare better pleadings or charges," says Quinterri, "Thomas instead continues to escalate matters in the press, which is contrary to his ethical requirements and driven solely by his political ambitions."
Aiken contends Thomas's actions have serious implications for the judiciary,
There seems little need to overstate the case: the independence of the judiciary in Maricopa County is at stake here. Judges cannot defend their rulings, themselves, or the system in the public forum. Lawyers have always come to the defense of the judiciary and our court system. We took an oath to do so. We must do it now. No one else will.
"Justice cannot function in this chaos," Quinterri says, "for one practical example, the condoning of the deputy sheriffs not bringing the prisoners into court, calling in sick, etc., causes breakdowns in a system already burdened by the economy. The attacks and 'strikes' on various judges causes shifting around inside the court and re-calendaring and delay."
Arpaio and Thomas have not been deterred by the growing clamor of criticism within the local community or the legal community. Last weekend, Arpaio's deputies showed up at the homes of low- and mid-level county and court employees to interrogate them. Tuesday, they showed up at the homes of Superior Court judges' assistants, which one judge characterized as "pure intimidation." The Maricopa County Civil Litigation Department spokesperson, Cari Gerchick called the deputies "goons" and told county employees they do not have to cooperate with deputies.
Even attorneys hired to represent those under suspicion are finding themselves caught in the dragnet. When recently indicted Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox hired Colin Campbell, the retired presiding judge of the Superior Court, as her attorney, investigators demanded an interview with Campbell to determine whether he could be part of the alleged conspiracy. Investigators also wanted to know whether Campbell was working with the State Bar of Arizona to file charges against Thomas.
Campbell called the questions "unheard of and unethical" saying that investigators are infringing on Wilcox's right to counsel and attorney-client privilege. Maricopa County Chief Deputy David Hendershott fired back, "Regardless whether Colin Campbell likes it or not, at the very least, he is a witness to the ongoing racketeering investigation and currently ongoing criminal investigations."
On Friday, the Arizona Republic Editorial Board once again opined on the matter, saying,
Think of it: Within hours of launching his defense of Wilcox, the supervisor's lawyer is forced to defend himself against the daunting power of Joe Arpaio's badge. This is not the rule of law. It is the rule of brash thuggery.
The Republic's editorial board went on to say, "There is no higher form of corruption among American officeholders than this. In fact, there is but one behavior more contemptible than this: The timid unwillingness of Arizona's political "leaders'" to utter a word against it."
Legal blogs across the country have been discussing Maricopa County's sheriff and county attorney, some even asking why the citizens and legal community here are inactive or complicit. Mark Bennett, a lawyer from Texas, writes in his blog,
Students of the Constitution have always realized that our tripartite government relies on the good will of the executive (which controls the use of violence) and the legislative (which controls the money) to do what the judiciary (which controls bupkus) says. When the guys with all of the guns stop listening to the guys in black robes, they stop participating in our Constitutionally-formed government and become no better than warlords.
Michael Manning, a prominent Phoenix attorney, wrote in a Sunday editorial,
Charging a highly respected jurist with a "crime" for failing to agree with the sheriff and his county attorney should be the alarm that provokes business leaders, civic leaders, professionals, and religious leaders, to urge our Bar Association and/or Supreme Court to exercise their authority and stop this assault on our community, our culture, and our economy.
Quinterri told HuffPost that people are scared, including those in the legal community, but she wants people to see that lawyers in Maricopa County are not complicit,
I have noticed lately that blogs across the country are despairing that we are doing nothing. I disagree that lawyers in this country are doing nothing as individuals, but I think the practical difficulty has been how to organize as a group. We practice all over a huge county and there are thousands of lawyers here. This demonstration is a first step in seeking like-minded lawyers and allowing them a forum.
Monday's noon rally is being coordinated via email and on Facebook. Jim Belanger, who was the first to ask his fellow lawyers to join him on the steps of the Central Court building, says, "I do not consider myself an organizer of a rally. I consider myself as someone who has an idea for people who choose to do so to publicly and civilly express their sentiments."