For the newest justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, the decision to pursue a career in law wasn’t some sort of lifelong goal. In fact, it was barely a conscious pursuit.
“It was kind of a default decision,” explained John Pelander, appointed last month to become the 41st justice on the state’s high court.
Pelander said he was a political science major at Wittenburg University in Ohio.
“I was exposed to some law courses,” he said during an interview with Capitol Media Services, such as constitutional law and one on law and economics. And Pelander said he was the only person he knew in college who liked the course on logic.
So what does one do with a bachelor’s degree in political science?
Pelander said he knew he didn’t want to teach. And he didn’t want to pursue a master’s degree.
It was his dad who suggested law — and not necessarily to practice it. He had a law degree, though he worked all his life not as an attorney but instead as a wage and compensation specialist for Standard Oil of Ohio.
“He thought that was very valuable in the way he approached and analyzed issues, even in his job,” Pelander said.
Following in his father’s footsteps, though, wasn’t a realistic option, he said, adding that his dad’s job “`sounded utterly boring.”
“And because I had no other better ideas, I explored the idea of going to law school,” he said.
If nothing else, Pelander said he knew he didn’t particularly want to go to law school in Ohio, as that likely would mean he would never leave the state. Instead, Pelander applied to and eventually was admitted to the University of Arizona College of Law where he graduated in 1976.
He practiced law at the same Tucson firm for 18 years before being tapped in 1995 for the state Court of Appeals by Gov. Fife Symington.
What Pelander said he brought to the appellate court — and brings now to the Supreme Court — is a philosophy of the role of the judiciary, one that Gov. Jan Brewer specifically cited when she chose him to replace retiring Justice Ruth McGregor.
“He shares my philosophy that judges should strictly interpret the laws and the constitution and not legislate from the bench,” the governor said.
Pelander said it stems from his view that judges are most akin to umpires.
“They don’t make the rules, they don’t define the strike zone,” he said. “But they have to evenhandedly, without favoritism or bias, apply the rules.”
Pelander conceded that it’s not really that simple. Otherwise, all court rulings would be unanimous.
“It’s not just a sterile mathematical computation,” he said. “The law is much more complicated than that.”
And he said that is particularly true at the Supreme Court level.
“The court is faced with very complex, complicated, hard cases,” Pelander said.
“The law in some instances is very clear but in some instances is not,” he continued. “And reasonable minds can disagree on what the law says, how it should be interpreted and applied.”
But Pelander said his point about judges as umpires was to stress his view that they should not be making the rules.
Even then, he said, sticking with his baseball analogy, not everyone will agree with the calls.
“As you know, if you’ve been to any sporting event, there’s a lot of booing that goes on when people disagree with the umpire’s call,” Pelander said.
“Sometimes there are judgment calls, in baseball or any sport you can think of,” he said. “The same is true of judging, I think.”
Pelander has seen that close up: He said a “handful” of the approximately 130 published opinions he wrote as a Court of Appeals judge have been overturned.
So did he get it wrong? The high court was in error? Or was it just an honest disagreement over the law?
“I think it’s the latter,” Pelander responded. “This gets back to my point that reasonable minds can view the law differently and can come up with different results in some cases.”
One priority that Pelander has should be of interest to the business community: making the court system more efficient.
He said the state’s budget problems have had fallout in the judiciary, forcing courts to prioritize how they handle cases. He said criminal matters are at or near the top, along with family law cases including divorce and child custody. The court also is busy with special action petitions and election law matters.
What tends to be at the bottom, Pelander said, are the civil cases, where one party is suing the other over some perceived wrong. And that, he said, is where those business-to-business lawsuits fall.
All that, said Pelander, now results in delays in getting those issues resolved.
One thing Pelander will have to decide is how much time to spend in Phoenix where the other four justices live and work all week.
He is the first justice from Pima County since Stanley Feldman retired at the end of 2002.
“I would have to wait and see what that means for me personally,” Pelander said.
“I would be ready, willing and able to be here as much as was necessary,” he continued. “I don’t know how that would play out.”
Pelander said automation and technology give him full access to the trial court records and the briefs filed in the high court by the attorneys. But he also said “face-to-face interaction is very important.”
There’s another angle to being from Pima County: Pelander said his time there, especially as an attorney in private practice, convinced him things are just different south of the Gila River.
“I noticed a difference in culture and custom in the way the law was practiced,” he said.
“Is there a ‘Baja Arizona mentality’? I’m no sure how to answer that,” he continued. “I will tell you, whether it’s right or wrong is not the point. I think we’re talking about perception and not necessarily reality. But sometimes perception is more important than reality.’’
If nothing else, Pelander said there is a sense of “disconnectedness or detachment” by attorneys and residents of the other 14 counties when they consider the activities of the Supreme Court.
Pelander is careful not to blame that on the justices, pointing out they have taken the court on the road, even having oral arguments in various communities around the state.
If nothing else, Pelander believes it is a good idea to have someone on the court from outside Maricopa County.
Outside the courtroom, Pelander said he enjoys being outdoors and hiking, though he doesn’t do that as much as he used to. He also loves sports.
“Believe it or not, I still play some basketball,” said the 58-year-old judge, though he said “not very well.”
“My questionable jump shot has long ago left me,” he quipped. “You can ask anybody at the YMCA, they would confirm that.”
Notable case history
Some of the cases that John Pelander decided and wrote the majority opinion as a judge of the Arizona Court of Appeals:
Internet sales — Ruled that those who buy items on the World Wide Web can’t count on suing a seller from another state in Arizona courts (May 2009)
Public records — Concluded that private e-mails on a government computer are not public records. (August 2006)
Tribal sovereignty — Tribal casinos can’t be sued in state court even if they serve customers too much alcohol and those people go out and kill someone else off the reservation. (March 2006)
Public employees — Said a Pinal County sheriff’s deputy who struck a restrained inmate is not entitled to his job back. (July 2005)
Representing yourself — Concluded that going to court without an attorney is not a sufficient reason to permit someone to miss deadlines. (December 2005)
Tucson symphony — Ruled that four musicians were not entitled to receive the remainder of their annual salaries promptly at the end of the season. (November 2004)
City permits — Said the Town of Marana did not have to pay nearly $430,000 to a company denied a permit to locate a medical waste facility there even if the council acted for political reasons. (December 2003)
Marriage — Said a woman whose future husband lied to her about his financial condition and his previous marriages and then didn’t keep his promise to stop dressing in women’s clothes is entitled to have the marriage annulled. (December 2003)
Drunk driving — Ruled a woman could not use a “necessity” defense to explain why she was legally drunk when she got behind the wheel of her vehicle. (August 2002)
Sex crimes — Said someone who has been “flashed” is a victim of a sex crime and not a witness, and therefore entitled to the protections of Arizona’s Victims’ bill of Rights (November 2001)
Workers’ compensation — Blocked a doctor from testifying against a former Tucson police officer who was accused of workers’ compensation fraud, concluding there was a physician-patient relationship. (June 2001)
Overtime pay — Said Pima County taxpayers don’t have to pay jailers more than $4 million for their lunch breaks, even if they are on call (June 2001)
Smoking laws — Upheld the validity of Tucson’s anti-smoking ordinance, rejecting arguments by the owners of a restaurant that the law is flawed. (May 2001)
Billboards — Rejected arguments by a billboard company that it could keep the upward-shining lights on its billboards because they were there before Tucson enacted its “dark sky” requirements. (May 1998)
Towing — Said owners don’t have to pay towing charges before they can retrieve their vehicles. (June 1996)
Public jobs — Ruled it is permissible for a county board of supervisors to discriminate against someone in a hiring decision based on that person’s political registration. (September 1995)
- Arthur John Pelander III
- Age — 58
- Party registration — Republican; independent prior to November 1979
- Bachelor of Arts degree, 1973, Wittenburg University (Ohio)
- Juris Doctorate degree, 1976, University of Arizona
- Master of Laws in Judicial Process, 1998, University of Virginia
- Private practice, 1977-1996 in firm currently known as Slutes, Sakrison & Rogers, Tucson
- Court of Appeals, 1995-present