Prosecutor: 'Race-based' courts unjust
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 16, 2005

Dennis Wagner

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 their probation.

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.

Program honored
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 attorney does."

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 intent.

'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 interpreter."

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 unconstitutional."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8874.