Editorial: Court merger deserving of close look for Cottonwood, Clarkdale

For the second time in as many years, there is talk of an overhaul of municipal court systems in the Upper Verde Valley.

A year ago, Cottonwood struggled with the cost efficiencies of having its own Magistrate Court when there was a Justice of the Peace Court right across the street.

At the same time, the Goldwater Institute and American Civil Liberties Union recommended a consolidation of city courts throughout Arizona with their justice of the peace counterparts because of the inherent separation of powers conflict that exists between an elected city council and its own appointed municipal judge. As the Goldwater-ACLU report emphasized, justice courts are part of the Superior Court system, and their judges are directly elected by voters vs. being hired and fired by city council members.

As for the cost efficiencies of a consolidated magistrate-justice court operation, Cottonwood should have plenty of financial information at its disposal to make that determination. This has been done before in Cottonwood. When Joe Butner served as the Verde Valley Justice of the Peace, he also doubled as the city magistrate.

In fact, 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. “This system is working very well in Prescott,” District 3 County Supervisor Randy Garrison stated in an email Wednesday.

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.

Short of that happening, a merger of local magistrate and justice of the peace courts is the best step in the direction of avoiding that separation of powers conflict.

Further, as Cottonwood Mayor Tim Elinski emphasized Tuesday, “We owe it to ourselves and the community to talk about ways we can provide the same level of service for less money, thereby reducing our need to raise taxes.”

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