Judicial Commission accuses Lester Pearce of improper campaigning
Published: September 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm
The Commission on Judicial Conduct today formally accused former Justice of the Peace Lester Pearce of violating judicial canons by campaigning for his brother, former Senate President Russell Pearce, during the Legislative District 19 recall election in 2011.
Disciplinary counsel for the commission is recommending the former judge receive a censure, which is a low-level sanction and effectively a black mark on his record. Pearce’s attorney said he is going to fight the allegations.
“He has served 16 years with distinction and he’s been head of the JP Association and after he steps down they suddenly bring this,” said attorney Mel McDonald. “He’s not going to walk away from it and have this smudge on his career, have it as a footnote.”
George Riemer, executive director of the commission, said Pearce can also be sanctioned with costs of the proceedings.
Riemer said judges are prohibited from making speeches on behalf of political candidates, endorsing anyone for political office and taking part in a campaign other than his own for election or retention for office.
McDonald said he has many witnesses lined up to testify on Pearce’s behalf for a scheduled Dec. 21 hearing and there are First Amendment issues at play as well.
“I think the question is going to be when does it reach the level that it’s violating the code of professional responsibility,” McDonald said.
Lester Pearce resigned from his post as North Mesa Justice of the Peace in April for his unsuccessful run for a seat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
The allegations center on two events during the recall election that his brother lost to Sen. Jerry Lewis: a ride in a car with his niece while she picked up campaign materials and a speech at an LD19 meeting. The commission also alleges he lied to investigators.
Pearce admits that he was in a car with his niece when she was collecting nominating petition signatures for recall candidate Olivia Cortes, but he claims to have played no role in collecting signatures.
“Does that mean you better get out of the car or get somebody else to pick you up,” McDonald said.
Pearce reported the incident, but Mark Harrison, the commission’s discipline counsel, wrote in charging documents that Pearce “may also have engaged in direct contact with some individuals for the purpose of advocating against the recall of his brother.”
Pearce attended an LD19 meeting where the topic of discussion was whether to adopt a resolution in support of Russell Pearce and oppose the recall.
Harrison wrote that the initial meeting minutes said the former judge spoke in support of Russell Pearce and against the recall, and that several witnesses at the meeting confirm that.
The minutes were later changed to reflect that Lester Pearce “spoke about the Constitution and the role of judges.”
McDonald said he has several witnesses who will testify Pearce spoke about the Constitution and judges.
Although Pearce is no longer a judge, Riemer said the commission still has authority over his actions as a judge. He said the commission offered no explanation on why it is choosing to pursue the matter now.
The charges allege his conduct was “prejudicial to the administration of justice” and brought the judicial office into disrepute.
Riemer said there are four levels of sanctions for judges: an informal reprimand, a censure, suspension and removal.