It has been a busy week for ethical issues related to Arizona’s justice court system, which is the first stop for most felony prosecutions in the state and where misdemeanor cases are adjudicated.

On Wednesday, Arizona’s Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) announced formal ethics charges were filed by the CJC’s disciplinary counsel against Pima County Justice of the Peace Adam Watters. The charges allege Watters’ actions last year violated Arizona’s Code of Judicial Conduct as well as the Arizona Constitution last year, including twice threatening to shoot a man in the head.

Read more by Terri Jo Neff >>

Also on Wednesday, a trial setting conference was held in Cochise County in a lawsuit that could leave two current members of the Cochise County board of supervisors banned from holding public office for their handling of a justice court appointment in 2019.

The lawsuit known as Welch v. Cochise County involves a February 2019 vote by supervisors Peggy Judd and Ann English to appoint the county’s third supervisor, Pat Call, to a lucrative position as Justice of the Peace of the Sierra Vista Justice Court. The appointment was done without considering anyone else for the job.

All three defendants are accused of violating Arizona’s open meeting law with how the judicial vacancy was filled, while Call is accused of violating the state’s conflict of interest statute for taking part in board discussion about the vacancy despite his interest in the position. A violation of the statute, ARS 38-503 is a Class 6 felony.

Judge Monica Stauffer from the Greenlee County Superior Court is presiding over the case. She used Wednesday’s hearing to get updated on the case then reset the trial setting conference so the parties have more time to address the Arizona Supreme Court’s opinion issued last September which noted the “circumstances preceding Call’s appointment plausibly imply his involvement in his own nomination.”

READ MORE ABOUT WELCH v COCHISE COUNTY HERE

Stauffer was told during Wednesday’s hearing that Welch’s attorneys and the supervisors’ privately retained attorney have been in contact with David Mackey, a retired judge from Yavapai County who Stauffer recently appointed as settlement judge in the case.  As such, Mackey will serve as mediator with the parties in an effort to reach an agreement to settle the case without a trial.

Call’s term ended Dec. 31, 2020 when he did not seek election. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring Call to repay his Justice of the Peace salary (which was double his supervisor’s pay), removing English and Judd from office,  and enjoining all three from serving in any public office in Arizona. The date for the trial will be announced by Stauffer on June 21.

Meanwhile, the CJC has not yet set a hearing date for Watters who could be censured, suspended, or removed from office if found guilty of the ethical charges.  The CJC’s threshold for guilt is proof by clear and convincing evidence, and the hearing panel is permitted to consider its six prior disciplinary actions against Watters from 2014 to 2020.

Watters, a Republican, served off and on as a justice of the peace for several years before being elected to the bench in November 2014 and again in November 2018. His term ends on Dec. 31 and he is not seeking re-election.

The current ethical charges against him date back to February 2021 when someone dumped trash on Watters’ residential property several times. His vehicle tires were also slashed twice.

Eventually Watters came to believe he knew the color and type of vehicle used by the suspect. One day Watters decided to conduct a stakeout during which he and an adult daughter were armed, and when the suspect vehicle drove by Watters stepped into the roadway, using his smartphone to record the confrontation.

The video shows Watters threatened to shoot the driver in the head if he did not get out of the vehicle. The driver, later identified as Fei Qin, complied and got out of the vehicle. But when Qin refused to get on the ground, Watters fired a shot near Qin and again threatened to shoot him in the head.

It was later determined Watters had presided over an eviction case in which Qin was a party. Qin was eventually prosecuted which led a process server to have contact with Watters to serve a subpoena. The process server recorded the interaction with Watters, who identified himself as a judge and made several vulgar comments, including one about Qin’s defense attorney.

If Watters is found guilty of ethical breaches, then the panel can impose an informal sanction in the form of a public reprimand or recommend censure, suspension, and removal from office.

A recommendation for censure would be final unless appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court, while a recommendation for suspension (which is without pay) or removal from office must be approved by a majority of the seven justices of the Arizona Supreme Court.

Qin was convicted at trial of stalking Watters.  Court records show Watters’ actions were the subject of a lengthy criminal investigation but he was not prosecuted.



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