Maricopa County Superior Court has a new presiding judge, and he is thankful he is taking over after most of the painful budget-cutting and political infighting among county officials are waning.
Norman Davis took over June 7 as presiding judge, replacing Barbara Rodriguez Mundell, who retired May 31 after two decades on the bench and five years as presiding judge.
"I think I'm coming at a good time when things are calm," Davis said with typical understatement.
He takes over as severe budget cuts have ended, and criminal investigations and lawsuits by former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio have been shelved - at least for now.
But around the courthouse, nerves are still frayed. Staffers remember that sheriff's deputies showed up at the homes of low-level court employees to ask questions about judges. And in recent times, a call from "Barbara" could mean that a judge and his or her staff faced imminent transfer to unfavorable assignments.
Mundell had many achievements during her tenure, key among them weathering attacks from Thomas and Arpaio and keeping the court on task through economic recession.
But her style was authoritarian and inaccessible. She often made decisions without input. Although she is gone, judges are uncomfortable speaking on the record about her.
Davis, on the other hand, is known for accessibility and unflappable calm.
"I think he will be a consensus builder," said Marcus Reinkensmeyer, the Superior Court administrator who works hand in hand with the presiding judge in running the court.
Superior Court has long been an international model of court management and a constant award-winner for innovation. It processes tens of thousands of cases per year, has an annual budget of $224 million and nearly 3,000 full-time employees - including 95 judges appointed by the governor and 59 court commissioners appointed by the presiding judge.
The presiding judge oversees a downtown Phoenix court complex and five regional court centers across the county.
Davis is considered an organizational whiz. From 2004 to 2007, when he headed the Family Court section of Superior Court, his policy reforms and technology use eliminated a backlog in divorce cases. And a recent award cites technological innovation that occurred when he headed Juvenile Court.
"Davis will do positive things," Judge Roland Steinle said. "He's a person who, if you have a good idea, doesn't mind giving you credit."
Davis calls it "synergy."
"I think that's our strength," Davis said. "I don't see myself as their supervisor."
But his is the kind of thankless job that guarantees fear and loathing.
"At the end of the five-year term, everybody's upset with you about something," said Colin Campbell, who should know. He preceded Mundell as presiding judge.
"It's like being mayor of a city. You have to make so many decisions that affect people," Campbell said.
Davis just wants to move forward.
"I don't really want to get into a lot of stuff in the past," he said. "I want to go into it with an open mind and a fair attitude to all people who use the court."
Years of tumult
Mundell, 54, who led the court through years of tumult, entered into the job optimistically. She was the first female presiding judge and the first Hispanic, and she vowed to listen to the community.
By her last year on the job, she was bunkered in her downtown office and eventually filed a $4.75 million notice of claim against the county, seeking compensation for legal fees and alleging a tarnished reputation, emotional distress, anxiety and insomnia stemming from political and legal battles with Arpaio and Thomas.
Mundell refused to be interviewed for this article.
The difficulties began in 2005, just two months after Mundell won a national award for a Spanish-language DUI probation program she created. Thomas fired his first shot at the courts, claiming the program was discriminatory because it favored Spanish-speakers. In 2006, he filed a federal lawsuit to stop it. A judge threw out the suit, but Mundell and other judges became regular political targets.
Thomas considered the judiciary an obstacle to prosecuting illegal immigrants, and he later alleged corruption and conspiracy in the long-planned construction of a criminal-court tower for the downtown court complex. In the midst of those disputes, the economy tanked, forcing Mundell and Reinkensmeyer to pare $16 million from the court budget.
Mundell also battled the Sheriff's Office over its duty to bring jail inmates to court hearings.
When the court threatened to hold deputies in contempt for not meeting the obligation, it spawned endless requests for public records and investigations into the court. The matter was settled this year.
One judge was charged criminally in relation to the court-tower investigation - the case later was dismissed - and Mundell and three other judges were named in a federal racketeering suit that also was dismissed. Last December, as rumors swirled that the Sheriff's Office was going to serve search warrants on her house and office, Mundell went to the Arizona Court of Appeals to block such incursions. Mundell also claimed that deputies staked out her Paradise Valley home.
Now, Arpaio and Thomas are under federal investigation, and those actions may come into play. In fact, Mundell testified before the federal grand jury in recent months.
Despite the rancor, Mundell's accomplishments were considerable.
Under her command, the Northeast Regional Court Center, a downtown Regional Court Center and Downtown Justice Center opened. Despite controversy, she got the court tower well on its way to a 2012 opening date.
Additionally, a new way of managing criminal cases was instituted, the number of pending death-penalty cases was whittled down from a high near 140 to a current 80 or fewer, and the court and Mundell won numerous awards.
Even a judge who complained about Mundell's autocratic style called her an effective leader.
"The point is, she did get us through that process," the judge said.
Fan of technology
Enter Norm Davis, 60, a fourth-generation Arizonan from St. Johns. After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in accounting, he attended law school at Arizona State University and spent 20 years with private law firms before being appointed to the bench in 1995 by then-Gov. Fife Symington.
Davis presided over the opening of the Northwest Regional Court Center in Surprise in 2002.
In 2004, when the Arizona Supreme Court ordered a cleanup of the Superior Court's Family Court, the job fell to Davis. He instituted "divorce on demand," which fast-tracked uncontested divorces so they could be finalized within 24 hours of fulfilling all requirements. Within months, a longstanding backlog was cleared. He also introduced software in the court self-service centers that used TurboTax-style programs so court customers could fill out their own divorce paperwork.
Davis moved to Juvenile Court. Last week, a national association bestowed an award on that court for a technology system that reduces costs while monitoring staff and volunteers who work as advocates for children.
As presiding judge, Davis plans to use technology in new ways: for example, to link courts statewide, providing instant access to data such as criminal warrants and pre-sentence reports.
When asked his opinions on the future of the court, Judge Pendleton Gaines waved away the question and said, "The real story is not a story, and that's how well the court is running."