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Montgomery to high court opens way for criminal justice changes

Newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery avoids reporters in the basement of the Executive Tower after being sworn-in. (PHOTO BY DILLON ROSENBLATT/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES)

Newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Bill Montgomery avoids reporters in the basement of the Executive Tower after being sworn-in. (PHOTO BY DILLON ROSENBLATT/ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES)

Lawmakers and advocates who’ve sought for years to overhaul Arizona’s criminal justice system are cautiously optimistic that longtime Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s ascension to the state Supreme Court will clear the way for substantive change next legislative session.

During his nearly decade-long term as Maricopa County’s “top cop,” Montgomery and his tough-on-crime policies held great influence at the Capitol, frustrating lawmakers from both parties who watched legislation that succeeded in other red states die in Arizona. But as Montgomery grows into his role as an arbiter of the law instead of an enforcer of it, attorneys expect his voice in new legislation to fade.

Montgomery’s departure from the County Attorney’s Office will give advocates the opportunity to identify other roadblocks on the path to criminal justice reform, said Caroline Isaacs, Tucson director of the American Friends Service Committee and a longtime advocate for changes to the criminal justice system.

“This will be an interesting test case to see what some of the obstructionism is really about,” Isaacs said. “Was it about Bill and his clout or were there other factors at play?”

Rep. Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said he thinks there are other factors — or other people — at play in blocking lawmakers’ attempts to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. He wrote one of only two criminal justice bills to make it out of the Legislature this year: a bill that would have prevented prosecutors from pursuing enhanced sentences intended to punish repeat offenders against people who’ve never served time.

The bill passed both the House and Senate on overwhelming margins, but Gov. Doug Ducey vetoed it after receiving a letter from Montgomery and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. Even though Montgomery’s influence on policy is expected to diminish because of his new role, LaWall and Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk are still around and not shy about sharing their opinions, Toma noted.

So are Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, and Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who as chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees, respectively, decide which criminal justice bills get a hearing. Toma’s bill on repetitive offenders only got a vote in the Senate because Sen. J.D. Mesnard gave up one of his own bills that had already made it out of a different committee as a vehicle for Toma’s language.

“I would love to say that (Montgomery moving on) in some ways opens the doors for what we intend to do, but he’s not the only person with influence,” Toma said.

During the years Isaacs has advocated at the Capitol, she said she heard legislators cite Montgomery more than any other prosecutor. Rather than explaining that prosecutors disliked a bill, lawmakers would say Montgomery didn’t like it, she said. 

In addition to Montgomery’s public testimony on legislation, advocates have grown used to hearing about Montgomery’s behind-the-scenes conversations, Isaacs said.

“There’s no question,” she said. “We would hear whispers about secret meetings or that Bill Montgomery was seen on campus, and then all of a sudden bills went ‘kaboom.’”

Montgomery’s successor could have a substantial impact on criminal justice bills in the next session and beyond, she said. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will soon appoint a Republican attorney to fill the remainder of Montgomery’s term.

Freshman Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, who’s made criminal justice his main focus at the Legislature, said he sees Montgomery’s move to the Supreme Court as an opportunity to move the ball forward on the work he wants to do.  Blackman turned down entreaties from the National Republican Congressional Committee to run in the swing 1st Congressional District because he wanted more time in the Legislature to work on criminal justice issues, and he has spent the summer leading an ad hoc committee focused on changing how Arizona sentences prisoners. 

The ad hoc committee Blackman runs is based on a bill he introduced last session that Montgomery opposed. It never received a hearing.

Blackman invited Montgomery to speak to that ad hoc committee, but Montgomery would only meet privately with him. The two men have a good working relationship even though they disagree on issues, Blackman said, adding that Montgomery’s departure might remind fellow lawmakers who sought his advice that it’s ultimately up to the House, Senate and Ducey to make decisions.

“With him at the Supreme Court, it’s going to bring the ball back in our court,” Blackman said. “When I say in our court, I mean the folks that are elected to actually do our jobs and make those hard decisions. I look at it as an opportunity to continue the good work we’ve done.”

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