Two justice of the peace candidates will face off next month in the Democratic primary election.
Warren Sanford, who has been a justice of the peace pro tempore and a Flagstaff city magistrate for the past 13 years, is seeking to unseat incumbent Howard Grodman, who was elected to a four-year term in 2010.
This year’s race is focused on two hot-button issues. The first is a style of conflict resolution called “restorative justice.” The second is whether a justice of the peace should also be an attorney.
The annual salary for justice of the peace in the Coconino County Justice Court district that covers the unincorporated region around Flagstaff is $101,500.
Cases that arise within the city of Flagstaff are handled by Flagstaff City Court.
Justices of the peace preside over cases involving traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims disputes up to $10,000, and juvenile and adult criminal misdemeanor offenses. They also hold trials, initial appearances and preliminary hearings in criminal matters. On top of all that, they issue warrants, orders of protection and injunctions against harassment.
MAKING THE COMMUNITY WHOLE
Sanford’s campaign has centered on the concept of restorative justice, a practice common among many tribal groups that involves bringing all the stakeholders to the same table to resolve a dispute. He has advocated incorporating restorative justice into Flagstaff Justice Court as an alternative to punitive justice.
“The community as a whole is harmed by crime,” Sanford said. “So, you bring together the stakeholders that have an interest in the outcome of the situation in a collective manner to make reparations to victims, to make the community whole again so that the community restores confidence in an offender, and indeed, to heal the offender so that the offender can have that transformative experience and become a valuable, contributing member of society again.”
He cited an example from his time as a justice of the peace pro tem where a defendant was facing 10 days in jail and risked losing his job for failing to pay an old criminal damage charge that had caused a rift between his family and their neighbors. Instead, he arranged for the defendant’s family to pay the victims and had the defendant repair the damage as community service.
CRIMINAL CASES WON’T WORK
Grodman responded to Sanford’s vision of restorative justice by saying mediation between parties is already an important part of how civil cases are resolved in Justice Court, but restorative justice would not be particularly useful on the criminal side.
“It doesn’t (apply) to drunk driving, to driving on a suspended license, to criminal speeding, to fishing without a license, to hunting violations, to drug charges, because there aren’t any stakeholders,” Grodman said. “I don’t think MVD is going to send a representative to sit at a table and work out something for driving on a suspended license. I think, for the lion’s share of the kinds of misdemeanor cases that we see through to sentencing, there is no application for it.”
Sanford has touted restorative justice as a way to prevent what he has referred to as the “mass incarceration” of nonviolent offenders.
Grodman, however, said that is a gross misrepresentation of the way he has operated the Justice Court for the past four years. Between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, Grodman sentenced 136 individuals in his court. Of those 136, 72 received diversion or deferred prosecutions thanks to deals with the County Attorney’s Office. Another 52 received probation, fines or both. Just 12 individuals were sentenced by Grodman to between two and 11 days of time already served.
SPECIAL MENTAL HEALTH COURT
Part of the reason Grodman has been able to keep the number of people he sends to jail low stems from his creation of the Mental Health Court. Begun in May 2012, the jail diversion program aims to reduce recidivism by identifying and treating offenders who are involved in criminal activity largely as a result of serious mental illness. More than two dozen individuals are in the program, including felony offenders who would normally get sent to Superior Court for trial. So far, eight people have graduated from the program.
Grodman also said Mental Health Court saves the thousands of dollars the county would normally spend on competency evaluations and restoration treatment required to get mentally ill offenders competent to stand trial.
If elected, Sanford has said he would also like to bring a Veterans’ Court to Justice Court, though Grodman sees it as redundant because there is already a Veterans’ Court in Superior Court that handles both felony and misdemeanor cases.
PAYMENT PLANS FOR OFFENDERS
Sanford has also campaigned on a promise to expand on the outreach Grodman has already done to Coconino County’s remote communities. During his term, Grodman became the first Flagstaff justice of the peace to hold court outside Flagstaff, making six trips to Tuba City, three trips to Leupp and one trip to Cameron to clear warrants and re-establish payment plans for people in remote communities who might not otherwise come to Flagstaff to clear up their legal problems out of fear of being arrested. If re-elected, he has promised to set up a user friendly website to further assist people with their court business.
Sanford said he wants to go even further by sending justice officials into even more remote communities at least on a quarterly basis. He also said he wants them to “do more” than handle warrants and put people back on payment plans. If he is elected, he said, he will find a way to let people in remote communities go through pretrial proceedings in their own communities.
BRIDGE BUILDING FOR DUMMIES
Grodman was elected to the Justice Court bench after the job was vacated by Brian Kolb, who was Flagstaff’s Justice of the Peace for 10 years. Although justice of the peace candidates do not need law degrees, Grodman ran his 2010 campaign on the promise that his status as an attorney meant he could save the county money and bring a deeper understanding of the law to Justice Court. The strategy worked and he became the first-ever attorney justice of the peace in Flagstaff’s history.
During his re-election campaign, Grodman has continued to tout the benefits of having an attorney serve as justice of the peace.
“As a trained, educated and experienced attorney judge, I can make better decisions that are more in line with the law,” Grodman said. “There are lots of professions that require licenses. Would you want your bridge built by somebody who read ‘Bridge Building for Dummies,’ or would you want your bridge built by a civil engineer?”
He gave an example of a case in which he was able to identify a legal precedent that helped a man representing himself in a civil lawsuit get a restaurant to pay for the dental bills he racked up after he chipped his tooth on a piece of gristle in a chicken salad.
As an attorney, Grodman has also been able to accept guilty pleas in felony cases that come through the Justice Court, a legal authority non-attorney justices of the peace do not have. Without a justice of the peace who can accept guilty pleas, Grodman said, a felony case can be delayed by as much as two weeks, costing taxpayers an additional $85 each day a defendant has to remain in jail while he or she waits to be released under the plea deal. He said he accepts a felony guilty plea almost once a week and estimated it saves taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars annually. It is part of the reason he was able to come in under budget this past fiscal year, he said. He also received a $100,000 federal grant to clean up inaccurate Justice Court records.
THE PEOPLE’S COURT
Sanford acknowledged he would not have the same ability to accept felony guilty pleas as Grodman because he is not an attorney, but he said that does not mean he would not be able to carry out the duties of the office.
“I’m not an attorney, and that’s to my benefit in the position,” Sanford said. “There’s never been, until the current administration, an attorney (as Flagstaff justice of the peace), even pre-statehood. That’s because the Justice Court is the people’s court. It is the place where people come not just to have cases decided, but to have problems solved.”
If a felony guilty plea were brought before the Justice Court under his watch, he said, he could simply call in one of the current pro tem justices of the peace who are attorneys to accept the plea, as has been done in the past.
Michelle McManimon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2261.