In 1987, when Timothy Ryan graduated from law school at the University of Arizona and began practicing law in Mesa, the Maricopa County Superior Court’s office in Mesa included two judges in a strip mall.
The county employed 45 or 50 judges in all.
Since then, the superior court has doubled in size to almost 100 judges.
But with legal and illegal populations that won’t quit growing, and almost 140 death penalty cases clogging the system, judges and attorneys are sprinting to fulfill the promise of speedy justice.
Helping tame a stressed system is now Ryan’s job, after he was named associate presiding criminal judge in April.
He’s sharing the reins with Presiding Criminal Division Judge Anna Baca after making his transition to the bench a mere two years ago.
Why the quick rise within the court?
His brother Jim, a Phoenix attorney, cited Timothy Ryan’s personality and the breadth of his experience before he was named to the bench.
“He has a pretty even keel when it comes to dealing with people and tough issues,” Jim Ryan said.
The judge spent five years as a public defender, three years as a county prosecutor and 10 years in private practice before being appointed to the bench in 2005 by Gov. Janet Napolitano.
The Chandler native said he once took for granted the administrative and bureaucratic needs of such a large court system.
“I had a romanticized notion in my mind that a judge’s only responsibility is to take the case in front of them, review each and every statute and the case law,” Ryan said. “What I’m realizing is there’s so much more to the needs of the judiciary.”
On Wednesday at 11 a.m., the judge had already sworn in probation officers, covered another judge’s calendar and picked up some extra matters of his own.
But the energetic 45-yearold is not the type to let the workload overwhelm him, and he’s helping judges and attorneys do the same.
“We all remind ourselves that the simple approach is the oldest cases have to go to trial first,” he said.
Focusing on the here and now is key. He said he tells attorneys, who often have trials scheduled for the rest of the year and into the next, not to be daunted by how busy they are.
“Let’s focus on the things we can get done in a day,” he’ll say.
Ryan’s pragmatic approach to justice is inspired by a family line full of down-to-earth legal minds, especially the Honorable John M. Quigley, or “Uncle Mike,” a retired Pima County Superior Court judge and his mother’s brother.
In 1981 when Ryan switched from pre-med to pre-law within a semester, he’d been living with his aunt and uncle Quigley in Tucson, while he worked toward his undergraduate degrees — a major in history and a minor in accounting.
Lively legal discussions around the Quigley dinner table sparked Ryan’s fire for the law.
“You’d have discussions about the law not in the esoteric way you argue briefs to the Court of Appeals of the Supreme Court, but real discussions about what’s fair, what’s right, and what makes the most sense,” Ryan said.
Quigley likened the arrangement to an old Irish tradition called “fostering out.”
“In Ireland, it was quite common to have one of the boys go live with an uncle or aunt to get to know that family better,” Quigley said.
Ryan said he looks up to his uncle both personally and professionally.
“When I first was appointed, my Uncle Mike said in order to be a judge, you have to be willing to volunteer,” Ryan said. “There’s no such thing as an unacceptable division. Every case is important, every division is important.”
Keeping with his uncle’s advice, Ryan said he told presiding Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell he’d take a family court assignment, typically unpopular for its emotional toll and lack of glamour.
“That’s how I ended up associate presiding criminal (judge) is my joke,” Ryan said.
One of the perks of working with Ryan is his humor, said Judge Baca.
She said that meetings among the judges can get pretty serious, and Ryan knows how to break the tension.
Baca recommended Ryan for his position after working with him for almost two years in the civil division, when she’d been presiding civil judge.
Together they focused on opening up dialogue with civil attorneys in an attempt to make the judicial process smoother.
Ryan’s style and history with local lawyers made him an asset to the process, she said.
“He interacted well with attorneys and others in the court,” Baca said.
Ryan can trace his ease with working with others to his father, Dr. Joe Ryan, who moved to Chandler in 1949 to practice optometry.
“He made every person feel special,” Ryan said, with a touch of nostalgia. “And he taught me by example the importance of treating your staff as people who work with you, and don’t focus on the fact that they also may happen to work for you.”
His father died in 1982 and was survived by 11 children, 40 grandchildren and eight greatgrandchildren. Seven of Ryan’s 10 siblings still live in Chandler.
Ryan will rely on his family’s values and his background in the Maricopa County court system to sustain him through the challenges ahead.
But when he needs a reprieve, he’ll retreat into the world of a good book. Right now, it’s “The Thirty Years War,” a history of religion and politics during the Hapsburg Empire. “And my kids like it when I read them Sherlock Holmes,” Ryan said. “And Harry Potter, so I’m guess I’m due for another long read this summer.”