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Pima court admin Lisa Royal resigns after judges vote 'no confidence'

Royal, a former justice of the peace, pleaded guilty in New Year's Eve DUI case

EXCLUSIVE: Lisa Royal, who pleaded guilty to a DUI earlier this year, has resigned as the chief administrator of Pima County's Justice Court after judges voted last month that they had "no confidence" in her.

Royal submitted her letter of resignation this week; her last day will be Monday.

"If I didn't have the confidence of the majority (of justices of the peace in the court), I wasn't going to be very effective," she said in an interview Saturday.

Royal has been on leave for two weeks, with COVID-19 symptoms, she told TucsonSentinel.com.

Three weeks ago, the 8 justices of the peace whose courtrooms are in the Downtown Tucson building of the Consolidated Justice Courts voted 5-3 that Royal should no longer hold her post.

Royal, 61, was cited for driving under the influence on New Year's, and pleaded guilty on March 19. She was fined about $2,200 and spent a night in jail, she said. She was also sentenced to three months of unsupervised probation, which was cut to three weeks after she fulfilled the other parts of her sentence, she said. Court records show she was sentenced to 10 days in jail; nine of those were suspended.

Judge Charlene Pesquiera, the chief administrative justice of the peace, confirmed that her colleagues on the bench had voted that Royal shouldn't continue in her job.

The final decision to fire Royal was in the hands of the presiding judge of Pima County Superior Court, Judge Kyle Bryson, Pesquiera said Saturday. But Royal's resignation letter, delivered Wednesday, mooted that question, she said.

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"It's unfortunate for the court because we are losing a competent and intelligent administrator... in the middle of the COVID crisis," said Pesquiera.

Pesquiera said that the vote was "strictly based on her DUI," downplaying any role that conflicts within the court over the handling of operations during the coronavirus outbreak, including the controversies over eviction cases, may have played.

"It was nothing to do with her work performance," Pesquiera said. "It was always stellar."

Pesquiera said that she was one of the three who voted to keep Royal on. The others, according to multiple court sources, were Judges Paula Aboud and Erica Cornejo.

Rumors about Royal's position at the court and the vote by the judges had been circulating among railbirds for weeks, but sources have been reluctant to go on the record. Royal herself was less than candid when a Green Valley News journalist asked her about her position Saturday morning, saying she was still employed by the court.

Royal told TucsonSentinel.com that she didn't know the specifics of the discussion among the justices of the peace that led to the vote.

"It's hard to please everybody," she said. "I can't think of too many decisions I've made where I've had 100 percent of the bench behind me."

"We were operating really well considering the pandemic," she said, noting that among the judges, "everybody has a different level of paranoia when it comes to this virus. Some aren't the least bit concerned" about opening the courthouse to the public.

Royal acknowledged having bumped heads with Judge Vince Roberts in the past. Roberts was among the justices of the peace to vote against her.

"I was treated differently than other employees but I have a different position," she said.

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Roberts had previously "made it clear that he didn't like me and was never going to support me," she told TucsonSentinel.com.

"That thread was always there; I felt bad about that," she said.

Royal said that Roberts, a former Pima County constable, remained angry that the Justice Court did not provide the Constable's Office with space in the old domed county courthouse a decade ago.

That decision was made by the other justices while she was an administrator. "They didn't want the constables as their neighbors" in the building, she said.

Royal said she tried to apologize to Roberts for any offense, but he told her, "It doesn't matter; you were never nice to me."

Roberts could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

Pesquiera also said that Royal's position seems to have been handled differently than other court staff with criminal cases.

"When individuals have gotten into mishaps — there's been a(nother) DUI that's taken place — people don't get terminated. They get reprimanded," she said.

"There's a question if she is held to a higher standard, or treated equal to other employees" because of her top post," the judge said.

The three JPs who voted in favor of Royal, who had previously been elected as a justice of the peace as a Republican, were Democrats. The five who voted to oust her include three Republicans — including Roberts — and two Democrats.

Royal a former Green Valley justice of the peace

Royal had been the chief administrator of the court complex for about three years.

Before that, Royal had been Green Valley's justice of the peace for more than four years. She left that court in August 2017 to resume her former position as Justice Court administrator.

Royal had retired as court administrator in 2012, signed an 18-month contract to stay in the position, then was appointed Green Valley justice of the peace in January 2013, after Gail Wight resigned mid-term. Royal, a Republican, was elected to a four-year term in November 2014.

"I think we did a lot of good things" while she was the administrator, Royal said. "We cut $800,000 out of the budget; the court became more efficient."

"I really enjoyed the time that I was there," she said. Royal said she has no firm plans for the future, but is looking for a position to put her skills to work.

The DUI charge "could've been the straw that broke the camel's back," Royal said of her relationship with the judges who voted against her.

DUI charge after New Year's arrest

Royal was arrested in the early-morning hours of January 1, pulled over by a Sheriff's Department deputy about 1:30 a.m. near La Cholla Boulevard and Orange Grove Road. She was scheduled to appear before Judge Pesquiera in Justice Court on Jan. 31, but online court records did not include any reference to her case for nearly two weeks after her arrest.

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Monday, Jan. 13, information about the case appeared on the Justice Court's website after news reports on the incident were published by the Green Valley News and TucsonSentinel.com, with those court documents indicating that the arraignment had been vacated and the case transferred to another court. The municipal court in Oro Valley took on the case, but then later transferred it to Tucson City Court.

It's a common practice to have a judge from another court handle cases in which there is a connection between a party and a court system.

Royal was arrested on suspicion of DUI after a breath test indicated she had a blood alcohol level of 0.115; she couldn't complete field sobriety tests; and handed a deputy a credit card instead of her driver's license.

According to a PCSD report, she was pulled over by a deputy participating in a DUI Task Force after he saw one of her headlights was out. The deputy said Royal had red, watery and bloodshot eyes and her breath smelled like alcohol.

Royal said she had consumed alcohol earlier in the evening and she presented a credit card to the deputy instead of a driver's license, the deputy wrote in his report.

"She told me she had been good because it was New Year's and she only had one drink," the deputy wrote.

The deputy wrote that when he asked Royal to walk to the back of her car, she walked to the front and began to look at her headlight. When he told her he was going to conduct a DUI investigation, "she told me that she knew exactly what was going on because she worked at the court," according to the report.

"When she got out of the vehicle, she was staggering as she was walking. She could not complete the Walk and Turn test or the One Leg Stand test," the report stated.

During those tests, Royal wasn't following his instructions, the deputy wrote. She walked into him at one point and into the back of her vehicle at another, according to the report.

The deputy also wrote that Royal failed the horizontal gaze nystagmus test and a preliminary breath test indicated she had a 0.115 blood alcohol level. The legal limit in Arizona is 0.08. Royal allowed another deputy to draw her blood to be tested later, according to the deputy.

During an interview with the deputy, Royal said she'd had two drinks between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. She also said on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being "falling-down drunk," she felt like she was a two, but at another point she said she wasn't feeling the effects of the alcohol, the report stated. She also said she felt it was OK for her to be driving at a two on the scale.

"Ms. Royal stated she was on a new diet and drank two beers. They were low alcohol (India Pale Ales). She stated that they were 4 percent alcohol. She advised they were Lagunitas 90 calorie," the deputy wrote. "She stated she had not really eaten because of her new diet."

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After Royal was briefly put into handcuffs then cited on suspicion of DUI, a friend picked her up at the scene. She was given a verbal warning for the light violation.

Royal had been ticketed by Tucson police for "obedience required" — a violation that generally indicates disregarding a traffic signal, such as a stop sign — on December 15 in the 1900 block of North Stone Avenue, between Grant Road and Drachman Street. Tucson City Court records show that she paid $130 in fines and fees related to the ticket on January 2.

In addition to the fines and night in jail for the DUI, Royal had to take a Mothers Against Drunk Driving class, a traffic safety course, 16 hours of DUI education and undergo alcohol screenings, she said.

'I really screwed up'

The arrest and conviction were "humiliating," Royal told TucsonSentinel.com on Saturday.

"I did what I needed to do," she said, describing her time in court as "the fastest DUI ever."

"I didn't want to be a burden to taxpayers" by fighting the case, she said.

"I knew I made a mistake. With your first drink, you start to lose your judgment," she said. "You can say to yourself, 'I'm fine; I can drive.'"

"I thought, OK, I really screwed up," she said.

"I got it done," she said of serving her sentence.

After the JP's vote, "It was just easier to resign," she said. "I still feel like I can really still serve the community."

Pandemic leave

Royal told TucsonSentinel.com that she has been at home on leave for the past two weeks because of symptoms of coronavirus.

While she has not been tested, as her doctor advised against it "because of false negatives and false positives," her symptoms have not been severe, she said.

She described having "mild fever, sore throat for a few days, with body aches" and being "really tired."

Some other court staff have had the same symptoms, and tested negative, she said.

Earlier Saturday, Royal wasn't entirely forthcoming about her employment status when questioned about it by Dan Shearer, the editor of the Green Valley News.

The two have often had a testy relationship, dating to her days on the bench in Green Valley.

Shearer texted Royal, asking, "I understand you may no longer be with Pima County. Can you confirm that or get back to me," according to a chat log he provided the Sentinel.

"I am still with Pima County," she responded.

"Are you in the same position?," he asked her.

"Yes," she responded, not mentioning her pending resignation.

Shearer told Royal that a lawyer's group had been told that she was "no longer there," and another employee was handling her duties.

"I have been out on pandemic leave," she said.

"The message to the lawyer group was that you were no longer with the county. That’s different than being out on leave. But you are telling me that you are still with the county, in the same position and that nothing has changed, correct?," the journalist texted Royal.

"Yes," Royal said.

Royal noted to TucsonSentinel.com her ongoing and somewhat sour relationship with Shearer, and that he'd asked her questions in the present tense. Royal's resignation isn't effective until Monday at 4 p.m.

"If he would've asked the right questions, I would've answered him," she told TucsonSentinel.com.

Green Valley News Editor Dan Shearer and reporter Kim Smith contributed background to this report.

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