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Justice Court halting evictions & misdemeanor trials for CV-19 outbreak, but one judge won't go along

JP Vince Roberts pushes back on case halt, wants to continue evictions next week

All possible criminal and civil cases in Pima County Consolidated Justice Courts have been ordered to be delayed for at least a month, including criminal misdemeanors and eviction cases. But one justice of the peace is refusing to go along with the plan.

The move follows a discussion among the justices of the peace at the court in Downtown Tucson, but not the JP courts in Green Valley or Ajo. Five of the eight judges agreed, with two opposed, and JP Charlene Pesquiera, the chief administrative justice of the peace, instituted the move Thursday morning.

One of the lower court judges, JP Vince Roberts, the associate presiding justice of the peace, wasn't inclined to agree with Pesquiera's determination.

Starting Friday, the court calendar will be cleared for 30 days, "excluding only those cases that we have not been given authority to reset," Pesquiera wrote in an internal email.

"This will include arraignments and evictions," Pesquiera told the other judges. "Further I am directing that all fine payments be made online or by telephone and that a secure drop box be placed on the first floor lobby for filings."

"I believe that these measures will go far in reducing the foot traffic in our building," she wrote. "It would be irresponsible not to adopt these measures. Many of our employees are fearful of exposure and some have children. We should do all that we can to ensure their protection."

Roberts responded to an email chain that began with Pequiera's order by telling Lisa Royal, the administrator of the courts, that "any evictions which are currently calendared and assigned to me are not to be reset and are to be placed onto my calendar next week."

Roberts did not answer his phone when TucsonSentinel.com attempted to contact him for comment.

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"For future filings assigned to me during your proposed reset period of 30 days please schedule them on my court calendar for Wednesday mornings beginning at 9 a.m. with 10 per hour," he told Royal.

All of the constables of Pima County declared Wednesday that they will no longer serve eviction papers on residents, citing the threat of transmitting coronavirus due to the many households they contact daily.

The 10 constables — law enforcement officers who serve court orders, including evictions and orders of protection — issued a letter saying they "will not be conducting evictions until we have received adequate guidance from the Pima County Health Department and the Arizona Supreme Court" over how to proceed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The asked the state Supreme Court to "take immediate action to halt all eviction proceedings until a state-wide set of protocols can be established to ensure the public's safety."

"We feel the gravity of this epidemic calls for immediate action to minimize infections in our state," the constables wrote in a letter provided to TucsonSentinel.com.

One of the constables who pushed to put evictions on hold is the newly appointed Constable Joe Ferguson. He reacted angrily to Roberts' position.

With Roberts backchanneling the message that constables could face legal consequences for the temporary halt, Ferguson said in a Facebook post that "Today I was threatened with legal action for my decision to delay evictions in Justice Precinct 9."

"I am unmoved," he wrote.

"I've been threatened and bullied for most of my life, and my response today is no different. I am not going change my mind," he wrote, in a post that linked to a previous version of this report.

"Judge Vince Roberts is defying the best advice from health experts to minimize court hearings and court actions and is demanding to schedule evictions starting next week. I buoyed by the arguments made by Judges Wilson, Carroll, Aboud, Pesquiera, Taylor and others in the Pima County Justice Court. I will continue to delay evictions in JP9 until I am given clear guidance from the county attorney and the health department," he said.

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"I won't speak for them, but other constables are going to continue to delay evictions for the same reasons — the health and welfare of our entire community," wrote Ferguson, a former reporter for the Arizona Daily Star.

Constable Kristen Randell pointed to the state "Constables Policies and Procedures Manual," which states that when dealing with an eviction, "The constable may elect to not remove the occupants immediately for good cause (e.g. minors are the only occupant(s), a person's health would be jeopardized by their immediate removal or any other extenuating circumstance.) In these cases, the party may be given more time to make arrangements."

Green Valley also delaying most hearings

While he didn't participate in the discussions to close the courts in Tucson, Judge Ray Carroll, of the Justice Court in Green Valley, said his courtroom will also be essentially closed.

"We'll be operating without any walk-in traffic," he told TucsonSentinel.com. "The front doors are going to be locked, and we've reset all hearings until April."

Carroll said he's "not hearing any evictions" during the pandemic crisis.

"I'm not going to do a writ (to evict someone) until we make sure the virus is well away," he said. "We're not going to put someone who should be in quarantine because they're sick out on the streets or in a homeless shelter."

Judge John Peck, of Ajo Justice Court, said that he's continuing to hold limited hearings and setting new cases to be heard by phone, and only allowing litigants, attorneys and witnesses into the courtroom. Peck said that he's instituting strict handwashing requirements for in-person matters.

"These will not be the last of the challenges to expect as we move forward together in this changing climate," said Judge Peck in a news release about the changes. "We may be uneasy, sometimes less-than-comfortable and inconvenienced as we change patterns. But we can always be compassionate and supportive – traits we have in abundance in Ajo, as we all know and have experienced."

Court still accepting filings, issuing protection orders

"We are currently required to remain open and accept filings," Pesquiera said, but the state's chief justice has given lower courts the flexibility to delay proceedings and suspend timelines.

"Judge (Kyle) Bryson (of Pima County Superior Court) affirmed in his email to us yesterday regarding eviction hearings since Rule 6 of the rules of civil procedure was suspended," she said.

The justice courts will still issue orders of protection and injunctions against harassment, court Administrator Lisa Royal confirmed in a phone call Thursday.

Constable Randall, of Justice Precinct 8 in Midtown, said that all of the constables will continue to serve all other criminal papers, including small claims notices, orders of protection and injunctions against harassment.

"It's really important that people know they can still get those orders," she told TucsonSentinel.com on Wednesday afternoon.

Other courts limiting access, closing

"I made attempts to see what other courts are doing," Pesquiera said. " I conferred with Judge Riojas from City Court and we are both in agreement of these protocols for our courts. Maricopa County Justice Courts are following the same suit. Superior Court is also taking measures to reduce visitors to its courthouse to prevent the spread of the virus and to comply with CDC guidelines."

Judges Vince Roberts and Susan Bacal dissented from the decision during the discussion among the judges.

In an exchange of emails over the past week, Bacal indicated several times that she would prefer to keep her courtroom operating.

"Again, I will comply with all orders given and my biggest concern will be the health and well being of all. Staff is still required to come to work. I will too," she said Thursday.

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"Close shop," Judge Paula Aboud said simply.

Much of the discussion between the justices of the peace was about logistical matters, but evictions were also repeatedly brought up, especially after the Wednesday announcement by the constables.

"These are purely civil matters... the health and safety danger to our community which exists due to the pandemic outweighs the concerns and issues present in purely civil matters," Judge Douglas Taylor said.

"There is also a public health concern if we rule on eviction for someone who is quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus," Judge Kendrick Wilson wrote to his colleagues. "If we order them out on the street, we are complicit in serious danger to every other person the evicted person comes into contact with on the street."

The decision by Pesquiera only applies to the consolidated courts located in Tucson. The courtrooms in Ajo and Green Valley are run separately.

The justice courts, each with an elected justice of the peace, handle a variety of cases, including evictions, small claims suits, misdemeanor criminal cases including some DUIs, civil traffic offenses, and protective orders.

While the shutdown will run for at least a month, cases will still be filed and handled later, including criminal prosecutions.

During the closure, the fee usually charged for paying fines online will be waived, Royal said.

Weddings, jury trials canceled

Wedding ceremonies at the courthouse were already halted for at least two weeks, court officials announced on Tuesday. Jury trials were also already pushed back.

There are no ongoing trials that will be affected by the shutdown at the courts, Royal said Thursday.

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