Mon, Feb. 24

Editorial: Rep. Kavanaugh on right track, but needs to take it one step further

The Arizona Legislature is on to something in its attempt to prohibit elected city councils from firing the municipal magistrates they hire.

Such a proposal was given the green light Wednesday by a House committee. The measure is championed by Fountain Hill House Republican John Kavanagh, who sees a problem with elected officials having such authority over the judiciary.

The measure hits especially close to home here in the Verde Valley as we have seen dramatic changes in the municipal court system in the past year in both Cottonwood and Clarkdale.

In Cottonwood, the City Council voted to cut its magistrate position from full- to part-time status. In Clarkdale, the Town Council voted to co-locate its magistrate court with the Verde Valley Justice Court and have local JP Bill Lundy serve as the town magistrate.

Should Kavanaugh’s legislative plan ultimately become law, elected officials like those in Cottonwood and Clarkdale likely would not have the authority to take the same action in the future.

The problem with Rep. Kavanaugh’s plan is that it does not go far enough. He wants to see elected municipal officials retain the right to hire their magistrates, but allow voters to then decide if they should be retained in office every four years. The flaw in that is those who hire likewise should have the same ability to fire.

Such authority, though, is at the heart of the inherent separation of powers conflict that arises when the elective branch of government has the power to hire and fire its key judicial authority.

Obviously there is a problem here that needs fixing. The problem lies 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 “officers or agents of the town” to hire and fire them.

Rep. Kavanaugh needs to take his legislative proposal one step further and make magistrate courts a division of each county’s Superior Court system. 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.

As is the case with the school districts in Arizona, there is ample opportunity for consolidation of municipal courts in Arizona with their local Justice of the Peace courts. 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.

Rep. Kavanaugh is absolutely right that our current system of magistrate courts in Arizona is flawed.

But if you are going to take away the elected city/town council’s ability to fire these lower-court judges, it only makes sense to take away their ability to hire them as well.

Give that authority to the voters.

They, ultimately, are the boss.

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