The acrimony resulting from the split vote Tuesday to renew the contract of Cottonwood City Magistrate Douglas LaSota points to a real flaw in the manner municipal courts have been established in Arizona.
The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled that municipal court judges are not “officers or agents of the town.”
At the same time, Arizona law allows a local city council to hire and fire its local judge, determine how much he or she will be paid and establish the qualifications of these judges.
The inherent conflict in this nebulous separation of powers is clearly obvious.
And many a city council member and mayor has crossed that line over the years. Judicial contracts have not been renewed because some thought the sitting judge was too tough … or because the judge didn’t live in Cottonwood … or because he made a ruling unfavorable to a friend of a city council member.
The conflict wrestled with by the Cottonwood City Council Tuesday wasn’t nearly so scandalous. It had nothing to do with the job performance of Judge LaSota so much as it did with the most efficient way for Cottonwood to provide municipal court services.
Judicial efficiencies have swung like a pendulum over the years in the Verde Valley. Prior to and in the early days of Camp Verde’s incorporation, there were Justice of the Peace courts with elected judges in both Camp Verde and Cottonwood. At the same time, there were municipal magistrates appointed by the town and city councils in Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Jerome.
It was an era in which a lot of well-paid jurists had a lot of time on their hands.
That followed an era of judicial cost-efficiency. The Camp Verde and Cottonwood JP courts were merged into a singular Verde Valley Justice Court. Cottonwood contracted with the JP Court for magistrate services. Clarkdale and Jerome likewise shared a municipal judge.
Now the pendulum has swung back to a different municipal judge in every town in the Verde Valley in addition to a regional JP Court.
On the other side of the mountain, Prescott has consistently leaned toward the side of efficiency. For more than 40 years, Yavapai County and the City of Prescott have operated a consolidated JP/Magistrate court. The collaboration saves both governments money because they share staff, duties, and court space.
Ideally, magistrate courts should be a division of each county’s Superior Court system instead of operating as an arm of the town or city government. That would eliminate any violation, or even the appearance, of the distribution of powers provision of the Arizona Constitution. Mayors and city council members would be divorced from the judiciary. They would never have to worry about being accused of playing politics with their local court.
The system as it is now set up is inherent with Separation of Powers conflict.
As for the bottom line, judicial cost-efficiency in the Verde Valley is highly questionable.