Prosecutor: 'Race-based' courts unjust
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 16, 2005
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas assailed a Maricopa County Superior Court
program for ethnic minorities as unconstitutional Thursday while announcing that
he may pursue a federal lawsuit to stop the "unequal justice."
Thomas' attack was directed at a pair of "race-based" courts set up to work with
Spanish-speaking and Native American defendants who already have been convicted
of drunken driving and who are going through counseling and treatment as part of
Thomas described the Spanish DUI court as "reserved for Hispanics" and said the
Native American program is "explicitly racial."
"Even at the height of segregation, at the height of Reconstruction and Jim
Crow, Southern governments did not establish separate courts for people based on
race," Thomas said. "Yet that is what the Maricopa County Superior Court has
done, supposedly in the interest of providing race-based therapy to these
drunken drivers . . . . Justice must always be colorblind."
Presiding Superior Court Judge Barbara Rodriquez Mundell defended the
specialized DUI courts, emphasizing that they were designed to reduce
drunken-driving deaths and accidents by helping two large minority groups
through alcohol recovery and education.
"These are individuals who are undergoing probation and treatment," Mundell
said. "This is not a race issue. It's a public safety issue . . . . We're trying
to show them how serious it is to drink and drive."
Mundell said the special DUI courts do not conduct trials or issue sentences;
they oversee post-conviction conduct of volunteer participants who are treated
no differently than are those who attend similar sessions in the
English-language program. Conditions include an alcohol-monitoring bracelet,
monthly court appearances and attendance in various substance-abuse programs.
Those who break the rules may be sent to jail for up to 60 days.
The Spanish-speaking DUI court, which began in 2002, received a special
achievement award for innovation from the National Association of Counties.
Along with the Native American DUI court, it is financed by a $396,000 federal
grant. In an application for funds, county probation officials wrote that they
hoped to provide an alternative to alcohol-treatment curriculum that is
"designed for the dominant cultural, male Caucasians."
Mundell said a mainstream DUI court did not work for Hispanics and Native
Americans, in part, because of linguistic and cultural differences. Under the
new system, Spanish-language defendants succeed 88 percent of the time compared
with a 66 percent graduation rate among English-speaking participants in the
regular DUI court program, according to a news release from the courts.
Mundell denied that special courts violate the equal-protection clause of the
U.S. Constitution. She said she does not intend to shut down the program at
Thomas' request, adding, "I usually don't dictate my actions by what the county
Thomas was joined by the Rev. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County
chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who
said he objects to any "separate but equal" system of justice, no matter the
'What will come next?'
"Once you open that door, what will come next?" he asked. "An Asian-community
court? A Black-community court? Where are we headed with this?"
Thomas has hired Washington attorney Michael Carvin to research legal action
that could close the ethnicity-based courts. He cited a U.S. Supreme Court
ruling written earlier this year by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who found that
California prisons violated the law when they separated inmates based on race.
Shortly after Thomas' news conference, Mundell conducted an afternoon session of
the Spanish DUI court with about 45 defendants. The participants applauded as
new graduates accepted certificates from the judge and delivered speeches.
"I learned so much I didn't know. It has changed my life, this program," said
Israel Vega, a 42-year-old Guatemalan immigrant.
"I speak some English, but this is so much better," Roberto Meza Escobedo, 42, a
Phoenix landscaper, said in the courtroom. "It's a lot better than using an
Afterward, Mundell said she was bewildered by Thomas' attack.
"Other than making this a politically charged issue, I don't understand," she
said. "It's political posturing."
Thomas said he does not question the motives of those who created
ethnicity-based courts, but added, "Whatever the rationale, it is wrong. It is
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