County attorney out to abolish courts for Spanish speakers, Indians
Associated Press
Nov. 11, 2005

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, joined by state Rep. Russell Pearce, wants to abolish courts in the county that focus on Spanish speakers, American Indians and the homeless.

Thomas said his office is considering "lawful options" to end its required participation in county Superior Court's DUI court for Spanish speakers and American Indians.

Earlier this year, Thomas pulled a staff member from a committee organizing a court for the homeless that Tempe and Phoenix Municipal Courts will begin operating in February.

Pearce, R-Mesa, who is chairman of a House Appropriations Committee, said he will use the "big stick" of withholding funds if necessary to end them.

Thomas and Pearce both say the trend of creating courts based on race, language and socio-economic status is unconstitutional.

Presiding Judge Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, who oversees Maricopa County Superior Court and the county's lower courts, said the special courts are constitutional and Thomas doesn't understand how they operate.

"We did our research to make sure this is constitutional," Mundell said.

The Spanish-speaking and American Indian DUI courts were established in 2002 before Thomas was elected and are funded by a federal grant.

They are rehabilitation programs for convicted felony DUI offenders on probation, said Mundell, who handles the Spanish-speaking court.

"We want to teach people skills so that they maintain sobriety so they don't drink and drive, and it is important to give them these lessons in their native language so they understand fully and they buy into the program," Mundell said.

The Arizona Constitution requires that all courts of record, those where a record of every spoken and written word is kept, conduct business in English.

That means all pretrial, trial, change of plea and sentencing proceedings must be done in English. But once a Spanish speaker is convicted and joins the program, then the proceedings are no longer "of record" and are simply monthly status conferences on the rehabilitative progress of the defendant, Mundell said.

If the defendant violates probation and has to be taken into custody after the conviction, then the proceedings revert to English and back on the record, she said.

Thomas said that even if it is essentially a post-conviction, probation program, the Spanish-speaking and American Indian DUI courts violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from denying citizens equal protection of the law.

"You're making decisions about criminal punishment, which is what probation is, based on someone's nationality," Thomas said.

The Indian DUI court "appears to be a flat out race-based court," Thomas said.

Judge Louraine Arkfeld, Tempe Municipal Court's presiding judge, helped lead the development of the homeless court.

She said the homeless court requires more than just being homeless to participate and the defendants must be referred by specific agencies only after undergoing significant treatment and sobriety.

"This is another obstacle they have in getting things resolved so they can go back to being productive citizens," Arkfeld said. "That's a good thing for the community."