Retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan, who as a trial judge presided over some of the state’s most famous political cases, died of a heart attack Monday. He was 66.
Ryan retired Aug. 6, 2010, ending a career that began as a prosecutor and included 24 years on the bench, serving in Maricopa County Superior Court, the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court.
“Mike was a statesman and dedicated his entire life to public service,” said Chief Justice Rebecca Berch. “He was a wonderful friend and colleague who will truly be missed. His kind, soft-spoken demeanor masked a brilliant jurist and the consummate gentleman who could always make me smile with this sharp wit.”
Ryan presided over the criminal trial of former Gov. Evan Mecham, which was broadcast live in the Phoenix area from the opening to closing gavel. He also presided over the seven-month trial of corrupt lawmakers who accepted bribes in the AzScam sting and the 1987 Phoenix Suns drug scandal.
As a prosecutor, Ryan also handled one of the first post-traumatic-stress syndrome cases in the nation, in which a defendant who had killed two teenagers in the desert used the condition as a defense.
Ryan said that if he had lost the case the floodgates would have opened for the defense.
Ryan told Arizona Capitol Times in an August 2010 interview that he volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967 through a program that allowed him to be commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant upon graduation from college.
He was wounded twice and received a Bronze Star for heroism in combat. His wounds left him confined to a wheelchair.
Ryan also spoke about the Mecham and AzScam cases during the 2010 interview.
“The Mecham case was, I think, a case that could have been avoided going to trial if they had reached an agreement,” he said. “Now AzScam, I could say that, in one respect, was tragic to see that legislators could be seduced into taking bribes. And this is all on video tape or audio tape, so there was no question that they were doing it and it was disheartening, to say the least.”
Ryan continued to serve as a substitute justice when there was a conflict of interest for one of the Supreme Court justices. He was also the chairman of the Supreme Court’s Regulation Committee and Attorney Discipline Probable Cause Committee. And from 1974 to 2000, he and his wife, Karen, cared for more than 80 high-risk infants before they were placed for adoption or returned to their birth parents.
Ryan is survived by his wife, three sons and two grandchildren.