By Roger Ball
The 26 Justice of the Peace court precincts in Maricopa County represent the only locally elected justice officials responsible to the voters.
Constables are also elected in each precinct to represent the community.
Superior Court judges in Maricopa County are appointed by the governor and are only on the ballot every few years to see if they should be retained. The governor also appoints all judges on the Court of Appeals and all justices in the Supreme Court.
Justice courts are both popular and not well-known at the same time. They are where residents go for traffic tickets, file and fight evictions, seek restraining orders, get married, and file suits for limited amounts.
Sun City West is located in the Hassayampa justice precinct, which also includes Wittman, Wickenburg, the unincorporated portion of northwest Maricopa County, and a portion of Surprise.
In 2017 it handled 10,121 cases. 25.3 percent were civil traffic cases and 40.8 percent were regular civil suits. Eviction orders made up 12.4 percent and small claims suits 4.5 percent. Other cases involved criminal traffic offenses, harassment and crimes.
Justices of the peace do not have to be attorneys. The only requirement in Arizona is that the person be at least 18 years of age, be able to read and write in English and live in the precinct where serving.
Constables, who are responsible for enforcing the justice court decisions, which frequently means serving an eviction notice, do not need any law enforcement experience before being elected.
John Keegan, former Peoria mayor and a former justice of the peace, said the system is the most widely used portion of the justice system.
“Over 95 percent of the people who have a court experience have it in either a justice court or municipal court. These courts are about the only place left where someone can seek justice without having to resort to a lawyer,” Mr. Keegan said. “It still is a preferable process for selection of judges who reflect the community ‘s values.”
Ken Wright, a Surprise resident, agrees the system has many benefits.
“The system provides for more speedy input into the legal system and is less complicated. While the judges don’t have to be lawyers, I suspect they use the rudiments of due process in their proceedings,” Mr. Wright stated in an email.
But not everyone agrees with the current system.
Sun City resident Kenneth Gegg stated in an email he votes for the JPs, but thinks they should all have law degrees.
“Some things need to change, and it is time to do it with qualified people,” Mr. Gegg stted.
Though they are not attorneys, elected justices do receive special training when they ae first elected. The Arizona Supreme Court mandates two weeks of new judge orientation in January, and another week in April.
In Maricopa County new JPs are paired with a mentor judge for two months, and then phased into their own courts where the mentor judge observes and gives guidance.
Additionally, every week there is a new judge roundtable where the jurists gather and compare notes about their experiences.
Hon. Keith Russell from the East Mesa Justice Court is the presiding justice in Maricopa County.
“Training programs for our new judges are a serious commitment. The Maricopa County Justice Courts go above and beyond what is required because we want to put our new judges in the best position possible to meet the public’s expectation of fair, economical, and timely court services. Our communities deserve the best and that is what we strive for,” he said.
Justices and constables are elected for four-year terms, with about half up for re-election every two years.
Justice courts in Maricopa County also use resident to be volunteer hearing officers and have a need for more volunteers in the West Valley. The volunteers will listen to evidence in small claims court and some traffic cases. Interested volunteers can contact the Judge Quentin Tolby at MCJusticeCourts@gmail.com.