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.

Tonight is the annual banquet and awards ceremony of the Arizona Asian-American Bar Association, and there are many reasons to be happy you’re attending.

Hon. Barbara Rodriguez Mundell

First, yes, let’s say it: The food is always phenomenal. As in recent years, tonight’s event will be at C-Fu Gourmet in Chandler, Ariz. In the past, it was 10 courses, and I’m expecting something similar. I swore to myself I would avoid food throughout the day in preparation, and missing lunch helped achieve my goal.

More important, the event honors some of the most deserving lawyers and law students in the state. Tonight, we get to hear keynote speaker Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell. And then there are the awards.

I was especially honored to serve as a judge on an awards committee this year. AAABA’s Thomas Tang Law Scholarship is awarded to up to four individuals every year, and the selection is tough.

The law student applicants are judged on the following criteria: involvement with the minority community, law school academic performance, character, leadership skills, economic status, and commitment to practicing in Arizona.

Yikes. So it’s not just the writing ability, or the service, or the grades. It’s all those things.

Congratulations to the winners (whom I have promised not to announce in advance!).

Most of all, the evening and the scholarship are great because they recall past leaders. If you haven’t heard of Thomas Tang, you should read (below) what Wikipedia has to say about him. He was a great lawyer and judge, long before Asian Americans were welcomed into the fraternity with open arms. He is honored tonight, and every day, through the accomplishments and the endeavors of law students and attorneys who strive to improve their communities and their profession.

Thomas Tang

Thomas Tang (January 11, 1922 – July 18, 1995) was a federal judge in the United States and the first Chinese American appointed to the federal judiciary.

The son of a grocery owner, Tang spent his early years in Phoenix, Arizona, where he attended public schools. He fought during World War II, and became a First Lieutenant with the United States Army. After graduation from the University of Santa Clara (B.A.) and the University of Arizona College of Law (LL.B.), he was again commissioned to the Army and served on the Korean peninsula during the Korean War.

In 1952, Tang resigned from the Army and after a brief stint of private practice, served as Deputy County Attorney of Maricopa, Arizona in 1952-1957 and Assistant Attorney General of Arizona in 1957-1959.

He was then elected to the Phoenix City Council of Phoenix in 1960, and a Judge of the Superior Court of Arizona in 1963. During his tenure as Superior Court Judge, numerous lawyers who later rose to great eminence appeared before him, current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor being one of them. After losing his judicial re-election in 1970, due to a highly publicized juvenile murder trial in which he was accused for being too lenient, Tang returned to private practice.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Tang as a United States Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit. Tang served for sixteen years before he took senior status in 1993.

Judge Tang died in 1995, survived by his wife, Dr. Pearl Tang and their children.

In 1993, the APA Law Student Association of the South Texas College of Law, Houston, Texas, (including law students Kevin Pham, John Tang and Monica Tjoa) named a national moot court competition in Tang’s honor. The Thomas Tang National Moot Court Competition is now administered by the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) Law Foundation and the NAPABA Judicial Council. The Competition continues to honor the late Judge Tang, a champion of individual rights, an advocate for the advancement of minority attorneys, an ardent supporter of NAPABA and the moot court competition. Judge Tang’s wife, Dr. Pearl Tang, continues the legacy and participates every year.

The Competition is open to all students but is especially designed to reach out to APA law students and provide them with an opportunity to showcase their writing and oral skills and compete for scholarships totaling $10,000.