Tempe’s two justices of the peace will get new facilities through an initiative that Maricopa County officials say will transform the county’s judicial system from "good to great."
From Tempe’s perspective, the effort could more aptly be called "good to gone."
That’s the city’s reaction to Maricopa County building the new facilities in downtown Chandler, leaving Tempe without any justice courts.
Similar moves are happening across the county, but none has sparked as much opposition as in Tempe. The City Council is fighting the likely loss.
The two elected justices who will move to Chandler say justice will be harder for Tempe residents to access. The two courts saw 77,000 people pass through their doors when they last shared a facility in 2001, said West Tempe Justice of the Peace Victor Mike Wilkins.
All those people will one day have to drive to Chandler. Wilkins called the move the worst thing he’s seen in his 40 years of government work, including service as a police officer and police chief.
"I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for our taxpayers," Wilkins said.
Maricopa County has considered the move for nearly two decades. Money is the driving factor. The county figures it will save $57 million in 15 years by building new facilities instead of renting space in strip malls.
The move is part of the biggest changes ever for justice courts. The courts handle misdemeanors, the citations drivers get on freeways, and small civil cases. Justices of the peace also issue warrants and orders of protection.
The courts were formed early in Arizona history, when most communities were tiny and travel was difficult. Time has come to update the courts now that cities have grown together and mobility has increased, said Barbara Rodriguez-Mundell, presiding judge of Maricopa County’s Superior Court.
"It’s just good public stewardship of taxpayer funds," she said. "It doesn’t make any sense to have 23 stand-alone courts."
The county is building new facilities for all of the justices of the peace, most of whom preside over stand-alone courts within their own municipal boundaries. The new facilities typically house four courts in one location and some have Superior Court facilities as well. All the courts should be in combined locations within a few years.
Rodriguez-Mundell sees the change providing better service, too. Too often, people go to a court for, say, an order of protection but find the judge is tied up in a trial or gone because of illness. The staff sends them to another court, miles away.
The combined courts should improve access to justice by having more resources at one spot, Rodriguez-Mundell said.
But Tempe officials fear the move will hurt or kill a teenage court that involves high school students or an arbitration program that involves Arizona State University’s law school.
Rodriguez-Mundell said the court can find a way to keep the programs, perhaps by having night court once a week or Saturday sessions at ASU.
Tempe’s council decided recently to fight the move despite not having jurisdiction over the courts. Mayor Hugh Hallman said he doubts the city will win but figures it’s worth a shot. He and Councilman Hut Hutson are formulating a strategy to stop the move.
"We’re not going to have what I consider our representation," Hutson said. "I want to keep our courts in Tempe."
The county tried to do that, said County Supervisor Fulton Brock, R-District 1 of Chandler, Tempe and Queen Creek. ASU had land pegged for the justice courts, Brock said, but the university decided instead to build dorms.
The county also worked with Tempe, but a previous council "snubbed us," Brock said. The county jumped at the Chandler location because the city donated land.
The county owns land on Broadway Road in Tempe where a courthouse was planned before Chandler became involved. Brock said it’s still possible to build a court there or someplace else in Tempe — under the right circumstances.
"The bottom line is Chandler offered us free land and we’d like to invite every city to do the same," Brock said.