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Court clerk’s removal from office raises legal questions

Cindy Woodman (Photo by Jon Johnson/Gila Herald)

Cindy Woodman (Photo by Jon Johnson/Gila Herald)

It was a rough first year on the job for Cindy Woodman. The Graham County Superior Court clerk was in her first-ever role in the political arena, and some felt she was in over her head.

Within months after Woodman, a dental hygienist, took office, her critics said she created a hostile workplace environment, pushing some staffers to quit.

But among several alleged mistakes, her mishandling of evidence in a felony case was the final straw for many in the county, including Graham County Superior Court Judge Michael Peterson. He was so fed up with what he saw as incompetence that he compiled her mistakes and convinced the Arizona Supreme Court’s chief justice to effectively remove her from office.

Chief Justice Robert Brutinel’s administrative order on October 11 assigning administrative supervision of the clerk’s office to Petersen left some questioning the legality of the move.

On his new legal blog, attorney Kory Langhofer wrote that after reviewing all of the Arizona Supreme Court’s administrative orders since 1956, he and his team found “no historical precedent for the ‘administrative’ removal of another constitutional officer.”

“Impeachment, that’s definitely constitutional; recall, also constitutional; administrative removal, I don’t see it,” Langhofer wrote.

robert-brutinelBrutinel cited a provision in the Arizona Constitution that gives the Supreme Court “administrative supervision over all the courts of the state.” Brutinel did not immediately respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Paul Bender, an ASU law professor who teaches constitutional law, said the situation can be viewed as “overruling the will of the people.” He also says it highlights a glaring problem in the state’s legal structure.

“This illustrates why it’s such a bad idea to have people like clerks of the court elected even though they have to serve under judges,” Bender said. “And giving the court clerks some duties and giving the judges some duties and conflicts can arise and you have both of them elected by the people.”

According to the Arizona Constitution, a county clerk can only be removed by a recall vote or an impeachment. A recall effort was launched in September, and organizers have until January 2020 to collect 2,698 valid signatures from registered voters.

As for impeachment, Bender said that process is cumbersome and the least likely of the two sluggish options, as the state House of Representatives would need to get involved to deal with a local issue.

While those options exist, they may not be as quick as the chief justice would like it to be, Bender said. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that gives the justice the right to remove a clerk – the closest he can get is “limiting the duties” of the clerk and appointing a “lead clerk.”

“I don’t think that works,” Bender said. “Ms. Woodman has been deprived of doing the things that the clerk is told they’re entitled and supposed to do. So I’m not sure if you can get around that by saying, ‘Well, we’re not removing you as clerk. You can stay on as a clerk and you can issue driver’s licenses or something like that, but you can’t do anything in conjunction with the courts.’”

Woodman’s removal means that if anyone wants to file a lawsuit, an appeal or request records over what was said in the courtroom, Peterson will have to approve it, Langhofer said.

“There’s a reason the judicial function has been separated from the transparency and records-keeping function,” Langhofer told Arizona Capitol Times. “That’s no longer the case in Graham County.”

Things will remain this way until the local judge says it should end, Langhofer said, which means it’s essentially permanent.

While Woodman is no longer in the office, she still receives her usual paycheck and holds her title in name only.

Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson

“What he (Peterson) did was an overstep,” Woodman said, adding that removing her for incompetence isn’t fair and sets a dangerous precedent, as many elected officials lack political experience and need time to do their jobs well.

“This has a major effect on this community and a huge effect on the Clerk of the Court Office throughout Arizona. Because if this judge has the authority to take over the Clerk of the Court Office in little Graham County, what is going to happen to the Clerk of the Court offices, potentially, in any other county throughout this state?”

Woodman said she was advised against resigning and she declined to discuss her legal options.

Peterson’s complaints came in a nine-page letter to Brutinel. Peterson wrote that Woodman had never held a job at the clerk’s office or any court and had no management experience.

“Despite this lack of knowledge and experience concerning the operations of a clerk’s office and its role in court operations, Ms. Woodman redirected clerk’s office operations without learning the duties performed by her staff,” Peterson wrote.

The letter lists examples of what Peterson sees as negligence and incompetence, like employee claims of a hostile workplace environment, code of conduct violations, a lack of initiative to develop her “basic management or leadership skills,” employee turnover and several other areas of concern.

One of the main problems Peterson points out is the mishandling of evidence in a felony case, which Woodman chalked up to miscommunication between her and the court. In the letter, Peterson asked Brutinel to banish her from the courthouse, reassign her duties to someone else and have that person be able to decide if or when to relieve her of that punishment.

Woodman said that while there were some growing pains and a learning curve to the job, the instances Peterson listed were exaggerated and did not warrant her removal.

Because of the unique situation, Bender said he understands what led to that decision and he thinks the judges handled this correctly.

On the other hand, while other options of removal may not be as quick, Bender said, they should also be pursued and allowed to play out, but, he conceded this circumstance constituted an emergency given the degree of alleged incompetence.

Bender said that conflicts can arise because of the way the Arizona Constitution defines the relationship between clerks and judges, and because clerks are elected not appointed. When they do, Bender said, the Constitution doesn’t provide any good way to resolve that.

“People like clerks of court shouldn’t be elected by the people, they should be appointed by judges,” he said, adding that judges should have complete authority to remove them if they’re not doing their jobs right.

“That’s just the problem of the Arizona Constitution; it’s remarkable in how many offices it permits people to elect … in most states, people like attorneys general and clerks of court are not elected by the people, they are administrative offices who ought to be appointed by chief administrators.”

Woodman’s days in office may be numbered as recall organizers, which includes former Graham County Superior Court Clerk Darlee Maylen, estimate they have gathered about half of the required signatures. If and when they gather enough signatures before January, the soonest they could bring it to a vote would be May 19, and if not then, August 4.

If not enough signatures are turned in by the deadline, the recall effort is dead.

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