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Quentin Tolby, retired justice of the peace

Quentin Tolby, a veteran justice of the peace with the Manistee Court in Glendale, has stepped down after 14 years, trading in his role for that of an administrator for Maricopa County’s 23 Justice Courts.
He’s not just a former J.P. The adjective “former” also precedes titles such as mayor of Glendale, Glendale councilman, farmer, U.S. Air Force pilot and industrial machinery-selling businessman.
Though the son of a “quiet man” and a “small lady,” Mr. Tolby thinks he more closely resembles his adventurous uncles; the Kansas City boys who stretched a dare to climb onto a wild horse into a career running their own traveling trick riding and roping show.
For whatever reason, he’s never been afraid to speak his mind. He has compared feuding neighbors in his courtroom to Israelis and Palestinians, and written newspaper columns (against the wishes of at least one colleague) for years, familiarizing the readers of the Glendale Star and The Arizona Republic with the sometimes humorous, sometimes upsetting J.P. experiences.
Mr. Tolby recently sat down with the Arizona Capitol Times to chat about domestic violence, Scandinavian justice, national security, and what he calls the really low requirements demanded of people running for governor.
What type of cases do Justice Courts usually handle?
We handle a wide variety. We handle traffic, criminal traffic, civil cases up to $10,000, forcible detainers – which are landlord/tenant actions –, orders for protection, orders for harassment, sign search warrants, misdemeanors. I think that about covers the field.
Every precinct is different. If you have a precinct with a freeway running through it, you’ll have a lot of traffic. My caseload happens to be very heavy with civil because I have no freeway running through it. I do lots of forcible detainers because I have lots of apartments.
The caseload is different with every single J.P. It’s like night and day. Our communities are different. If you have Maryvale, you’re going to have lots of misdemeanors and that type of work. If you have Sun City, you’re not going to have much to do. It doesn’t create much work. Each area generates cases that are distinct, kind of like a personality.
What is//was the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I personally enjoy problem solving with people. I sit down with people and try to help them understand how not to get in trouble again. Especially domestic violence; I do a lot of work in that area to help people understand – some people put themselves in harm’s way and they go right back over and over again, right back into the same patterns. A lot of my writing is about domestic violence.
I’ve had people tell me, ‘yeah, I never looked at it that way, but I am now. The first time you hurt me it’s you’re fault. If you ever get the chance to hurt me again, it’s my fault.’
I try to get that message across to people. You can’t change them, you can change yourself and you have to make that change for yourself or you’re going to go right back to the same thing.
They’ll come in and get an order of protection and they’ve been beat all to hell. And then they’ll come right back in a week later and want to cancel the order of protection to go right back. I take the opportunity to sit down with them and try to get them to refer to one of the shelters or something to give them long-range counseling. I can give thirty minutes, but that’s about it.
A lot of times there are disputes between neighbors, and you gotta figure out what the real problem is. People fight and they don’t even remember why they don’t like each other. They say, ‘he did this or he did that,’ but wait a minute. This has been going on for five years. Let’s go back here and find out why you don’t get along.
They call us justice of the peace and I took that seriously, that peace is one of my titles so I try to get people to look at their problems a little differently. It works sometimes, but you don’t want to keep score because you’ll get discouraged.
The most frustrating?
It’s frustrating because of mandatory sentencing or because of the law that you can’t really do what you feel like needs to be done. The judge’s hands are very tied. Every year you see more of that. You have a case come in and you have to take the approach of one-size-fits-all. It’s difficult to say to someone that you’re gonna throw somebody out that’s sick and has children because they haven’t paid the rent. It’s difficult, but you gotta do it. You can’t say the landlord is gonna supply you with free rent. So if you haven’t paid the rent, you’re outta here, and she says, “But judge I’m gonna be sleeping under an orange tree with three kids tonight.” I’m sorry, but I guess you’re gonna be sleeping under an orange tree. That’s difficult.
I like creative sentencing, but we’ve got very little choice with that. A DUI? The Legislature enforces the same fine on certain crimes and you can’t look at it like an individual and say, ‘I think you get a little more and you get a little less.’
I kind of like what they’re doing in Sweden right now. I think it’s Sweden. Or is it Finland? The judge puts a percentage factor to the fine and they multiply that times your income.
Is a day in jail the same penalty for you for that guy pushing a shopping cart down the street? No. To you it would be devastating. To him, ‘what the hell?’ And so, we don’t have the ability to look at that and say, ‘Is a day in jail the same for one person as another?’ The law says ten days, so they get ten days. That’s frustrating.
In a newspaper column you wrote that decades ago you were told by doctors that your days were numbered, and rumor has it that you were in fairly close proximity to the Pentagon on Sept. 11th, 2001. How did these events affect you?
The first situation was when I had young children and it’s devastating to be told you’re not going to live. I think it caused me to slow down a great deal and caused me look at life differently, which has probably changed a lot of my personality. I was much more aggressive, much more rogue and whatnot. It caused me to reflect a lot more. They said the cancer was going to take my life.
The situation of 9/11 probably didn’t change my life as much of the first experience, but it’s a helluva experience to stand in your hotel room and watch the Pentagon burn. We were right across the street from it.
I don’t think that 9/11 really changed me that much. It’s an event in history but it didn’t change the way I look at life or my value system. My grandchildren especially were very affected by it. We were in the White House when they ordered us to get out. And of course at that time there was more effect because we didn’t know what happened. They were on the streets and panicking and nobody knew what was going on. The subway’s down. It took a while to realize what had happened.
It probably affected me more right now, because, you know, I gotta wear this damn thing around my neck (holding up an ID badge) and everywhere you go you gotta go through screening. That’s probably the effect of it.
In 1999, a Peoria J.P. refused to marry Lorraine DeJongh, (starts laughing) a 38-year-old woman, and Ed Gamble, a 99-year-old Sun City man, because the situation set off too many ‘red flags.’ One hour after that ruling, you married the couple. How come?
The Peoria JP, Lex Anderson, didn’t have quite the advantage I had. They came to him and said, ‘we got a guy who is 99-years-old and he wants to get married, and Lex said, ‘Man, I’m not gonna do it.” He walked away from it and called me up and said, ‘They’re heading toward your court.’ This gave me about 30 minutes to think about it. Marriage is a civil contract and for a contract you have to be of sound mind.
I decided I was gonna ignore his age and look at it more. Was he mentally capable of entering into a contract? And so when he walked in I was kind of mentally prepared. When he walked up to the counter I walked out see him and engaged him in conversation and started asking questions about “where were you born, where were you raised?” I was trying to act like I was being friendly and he said, “You’re trying to find out if I know what I’m doing.”
And I said, “Yeah, I’m trying to find out if you’re mentally competent,” and he said, “Fine ask me anything you want. Let’s talk about the stock market.”
Heck, he could tell you what stocks are a good shot, what the call signs were. He could give you dates in history. He was sharp. He was very sharp. So I made the decision he knew what he was doing. He invited me to three successive birthday parties since then and he did very well until the day he died.
Justice Court reform, which has placed J.P. courts like the one you have worked in for 14 years under the control of higher courts, the Supreme Court and Superior Courts – what are the benefits of this reform?
The Maricopa Courts were treated differently than the rest of the state. In the rest of the state the judge runs his court. In Maricopa County they have changed it so administration runs the court and the judge just sits on the bench. We got changed back to the same as the rest of the state. I think it was just a move to treat everybody the same.
What are the drawbacks?
I think that overall when we finally get it together there won’t be any drawbacks. Once we get it organized and put together we will actually have a better court system. Already, the unrest between the judges and the unrest between the Legislature has calmed down a great deal. There was a tremendous amount of fighting and bickering and nasty e-mails back over the last five years and now it seems that people are willing to work together to try to build a better system. And right now we don’t really have a system built. They kind of handed it back to us and there is still a lot of areas – we don’t even have a separate budget. It calls for a separate budget. They have merged our budget with the Superior Court.
In the past many J.P.s were not actual trained lawyers or even college graduates. Upon first glance, this fact could surprise many. What, in your opinion, should qualify somebody to serve as a judge?
Their personality is by far the first thing between a good J.P. versus a bad J.P. – the slow to anger, the willingness to read and the willingness to study. Being a lawyer certainly helps. It is not multi-faceted job and being well trained is only one of those facets.
It’s not something you learn in law school. It’s a completely different set of skills. You are dealing one-on-one with the public.
In the Superior Court there is always an attorney and the judge can always sit back and say, “OK, tell me a story.” And the attorney will tell the story in story form. But in our level the vast majority of work is “pro per” and you have to ask the person questions to get the story. If you sit back and say nothing you’re never gonna understand what this person’s problem is because they don’t know how to tell you their story and they sure don’t know what the law is.
We deal with a small section of the law that can be learned in two weeks and so you don’t need four years of law school.
It comes back to personality. The judges that have not made it in the past had personality flaws. We had a judge in Maryvale – he got disbarred and taken off the bench. The law degree didn’t help him much. The law degree didn’t make him an ethical person.
We get beaten up in The Republic every once in a while that we only have to be able to read and write. Well, that’s the same requirement for the governor.
If you’re willing to stay, willing to learn and you have the right personality – Barbara Watkins (former justice of the peace of Northwest Phoenix Precinct) was a judge that was taken off the bench a few years ago. It wasn’t because she wasn’t smart or didn’t show up to work. She had too big a heart and she couldn’t get through the judicial philosophy that said, “No, you follow the law.”
Another got taken off the bench about five years ago because he enjoyed acting like Judge Judy up there. He was a very wealthy man and he ran for judge as his plaything and he went down there for fun.
That’s personality. That’s not training. Percentage-wise the number of attorney judges that get in trouble is probably the same as the non-attorney judges.
We grind out the work. There is a lot of work and you sit there for many, many hours and if you’re not careful you can get yourself into trouble. You’re out in the open and everybody can see your faults. We deal with our problems. It’s very public. It’s very messy. The system works. That’s what I’m trying to say.
Superior Court judges are appointed by the serving governor, while justices of the peace must first be elected. Does the factor of campaigning – forcing prospective judges to appeal to the public for election, or re-election – compromise justice?
I don’t think it’s made a lot of difference. Does it compromise you to a degree? I don’t think so.
I don’t think it’s ever affected the way I’ve campaigned. I’ve never taken a donation while I’ve been a judge because I’ve thought that it might compromise me. I’ve always paid my own way.
I don’t think the quality of the judges is much different if you elect them or not. Both Superior and the Justice Courts are really bound by what the statutes say. You don’t really have that mush latitude on the bench to say, “I’m tough on crime or I’m soft on crime.”
Thank you.
All right, you’re welcome.

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