Maricopa County Court Tower and Supervisor Don Stapley

Today’s top legal story was a construction story—what could be better in real estate-crazy Arizona!

 

The “topping-out” of a building, even a new courthouse, is rarely much more than page 3 stuff. More often, it rates only a squib in the newspaper, or a larger filler news story, but only if there’s a good photo.

But the skyward reach of the Maricopa County Superior Court qualifies for much splashier coverage. For it is steel and mortar—and so much more.

The courthouse, as most everyone knows, has become a Rorschach inkblot on the legal psyche of the Valley community. It was constructed with cash that the county administration had saved up over at least 10 years. But it is also the most expensive single construction project that the county has ever taken on.

Thrifty, or spendthrift? Individuals disagree.

Recently departed County Attorney Andrew Thomas thought it was a waste of money, and worse. Over the past year, using the rising court tower as an iceberg, or a battering ram, he aimed crushing blow after crushing blow at county government. And in his mission to unearth what he claimed were massive improprieties, he even extended his assault beyond all the usual targets. He included court leadership itself, going so far as to file charges against judges.

Those actions—and therefore the Court Tower itself—split the legal community like very little ever has. It led to indictments, harmed reputations—on both sides—anger, recrimination, firings, and the specter of a rudderless county, perhaps mortally wounded by action and reaction.

Andy Thomas has resigned now, building his campaign for Arizona Attorney General. His replacement—Rick Romley—was named and has begun his own purge. So everyone has now taken a collective deep breath.

Hon. Barbara Mundell

But that high opera served as a fitting first act to the topping-out ceremony, where county officials maybe even enjoyed themselves, for the first time in a long time. Board of Supervisors Chair Don Stapley—who himself had been charged by Thomas—had to feel a certain sense of accomplishment on the sunny April day as he spoke to the assembled well-wishers.

But it was in a keynote speech delivered by Presiding Judge Barbara Mundell that we learned one of the more interesting aspects of the new courthouse.

She spoke on April 14 at the annual dinner of the Arizona Asian American Bar Association. And her words and tone also were those of someone who had come this close to a ship-sinking iceberg. She was insightful, drained, and relieved.

Hon. Gary Donahoe

Judge Mundell enumerated the challenges she had faced—including a lawsuit by Andy Thomas against a Spanish-speaking probationary DUI program, which he alleged were race-based courts. (She won that federal lawsuit at the trial and Ninth Circuit levels.)

“No Presiding Judge had ever been sued before,” she marveled. “I was making precedent, but not in a good way.”

She still sounded stunned as she spoke about “a new way of attacking the court that I’d never heard of: through press releases, out in the public.”

The low point, she said, was when she was contacted by the media at about 2:00 on a weekday afternoon. They had been informed that a search warrant had been issued for her home and office, and they wanted to tape what happened.

“I had to explain to our 14-year-old daughter that strangers may be going through our house, through her room.”

“Mom,” her daughter asked, “did you do something wrong?”

She managed to obtain an order to stay the warrant, if it ever existed.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s stories like that, you surmise, that make the engraved words on the new courthouse resonate even more with her: “The first duty of society is justice.”

But the visible words outside cannot compare with the words inside that people like me will never see. And those words are written on the building’s top beam, now hidden forever by lath and drywall.

Before that top beam was hoisted into its highest point, Judge Mundell said, many judges and court personnel were invited to inscribe it with a Sharpie. Most just signed their names. But then Judge Gary Donahoe stepped forward.

Donahoe, of course, had his own notorious run-ins with the County Attorney. Out from under that hammer, the judge added perhaps the most poignant hieroglyphics to the soon-to-be hidden building beam:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” —MLK

A fitting apex, indeed.

Here is the news story on the Court Tower’s topping out.

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