Parker Justice Court

The Parker Justice Court is one of three justice courts in La Paz County. The Board of Supervisors are considering consolidating the courts as a way of saving money from the county's general fund.

Perhaps the most controversial issue in La Paz County at the start of 2022 is the proposal to consolidate the county’s justice courts. There are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, particularly from residents in areas of the county that may see their courts close.

In the interest of keeping the public informed, the Pioneer has assembled some of the major questions and answers surrounding this issue. Hopefully, these will help you understand the issues and make an informed decision.

The County Supervisors will have consolidating the courts as an action item on the agenda for their meeting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 18 in their meeting room at 1108 Joshua Avenue.

 

What are Justice Courts?

Justice courts are defined in Title 22 of Arizona Revised Statutes. Each county is required to be divided into justice precincts, each with its own justice court. They hear mostly civil and misdemeanor cases, such as traffic cases. They are the court of “first reference” in misdemeanor cases and civil cases under $10,000. In felony cases, a defendant will likely make his or her initial appearance following an arrest in a justice court. A preliminary hearing will also be held in a justice court, with the judge making the decision as to whether to bind a case over to the Superior Court.

The justice courts are presided over by judges known as Justices of the Peace. Unlike the Superior Court, they do not need to be licensed attorneys. However, most of them have some legal experience, either in law enforcement or as administrators.

In Arizona, justice courts have the authority to assess fines and issue orders such as orders of protection.

La Paz County currently has three justice courts, one in Parker, one in Quartzsite, and one in Salome.

What are the major arguments for consolidating the La Paz County Justice Courts?

The major argument for consolidating the courts has to do with saving the county money. La Paz County is currently trying to rebuild from another financial crisis. They came into the 2021-22 fiscal year with a $4 million shortfall in the general fund. The argument is that the county must not only deal with the current crisis, they must also take steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

According to County Administrator Megan Spielman, the county currently spends $1.3 million from the general fund each year on the justice courts. With just two courts, those costs would be reduced to $900,000. With one court, the costs would be $600,000.

What are the major arguments against consolidating the Justice Courts?

 

The argument is this would be taking county services away from residents of outlying areas of the county, especially if the only court left open would be in Parker. Consolidation would make it more difficult for county residents to have access to court services, like orders of protection.

Opponents of consolidation say the number of judicial credits a court may have does not reflect the actual caseloads of these courts. They say a lot of work these courts do is not reflected in the judicial credits.

Another argument is that none of the current justice court buildings in La Paz County are large enough to handle the increased caseload of consolidation, and a new building would have to be erected.

So are the justice courts losing money for the county?

 

Not at this time. Spielman said the courts currently bring in $1.5 million each year, and they cost the county about $1.3 million from the general fund. In addition, there is a lot of state funding, such as grants, that the courts have access to. Recent security upgrades at the courts, for example, were paid for by the state.

What are Judicial Credits?

 

Judicial credits are defined under ARS 22-125. Their primary purpose is to determine the salary of the Justice of the Peace. They are determined by a formula in which the number of cases in a certain class is divided by a set figure.

For example, to determine the number of judicial credits from civil cases, the number of cases filed in a year is divided by 10. This means that, if 100 civil cases are filed in a given year, the court would receive 10 judicial credits.

For misdemeanors the felonies, the number of cases is again divided by 10 to determine the judicial credits. Civil traffic and civil marijuana cases are divided by 60, while orders of protection are divided by five.

ARS 22-125-H states that no justice court may exceed 1,200 credits in a given year. If that happens, the statute states, “the county board of supervisors shall create sufficient courts, or redraw the justice court precinct boundaries according to section 22-101, in order to reduce the judicial productivity credits for any precinct which exceeds that limit.”

Spielman said the Quartzsite Justice Court currently has 270.93 credits per year, Parker had 178.37, and Salome has 100.30. The total credits of 549.6 is not even half of what the state would require to have more than one court.

District 2 Supervisor Duce Minor said La Paz County has three justice courts because that’s what they inherited from Yuma County in 1983. Were they starting over, he said it would be likely they wouldn’t have as many of them.

We heard the county has a lot of money, but they can’t use it to shore up the general fund. What’s up with that?

 

This brings up the issue of unrestricted funds and restricted funds.

Unrestricted funds are those that can be used for any purpose. They are mostly included in the county’s general fund. The general fund uses revenue generated by the county’s sales and property taxes, the state’s share sales tax, licensing and other fees, other payments from the state and Payment in Lieu of Taxes from the federal government for the all the public lands that cannot be taxed.

Restricted funds are those that can only be used for a specific purpose. The best-known example of these are Highway User Revenue Funds, or HURF. Funded by the state’s fuel tax, these funds can only be used for transportation, road, highway and street projects. It was reported in April 2021 the county has $6 million in HURF funds, but they cannot legally use them to cover the general fund shortfall.

So how does the Jail District fit into all of this?

The jail district has become a major drain on the general fund. By law, all Arizona counties must maintain a jail district. Any shortfalls in funding for that district must be covered by the county’s general fund.

When it was built, the La Paz County Jail replaced a facility inherited from Yuma County that was inadequate. It was thought that, by making it larger than what the county needed, they could take in low-level federal inmates as a way of making money for the county.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons was amenable in the early years, and La Paz County was assigned many federal inmates. As long as the jail had mostly federal inmates, it made money for the county.

That changed some years back, when the Obama Administration decided to pull federal inmates out of Arizona jails in response to SB 1070, the state’s anti-illegal immigration law. The jail went from being a money-maker to being a drain on the general fund.

That situation continues today. While the county has more federal inmates now, it’s not nearly at the level it once was. To balance the 2021-22 general fund, the county had to borrow $1.2 million from the solar fund. That was used to cover much of the $1.3 million shortfall in the jail district. That shortfall was a major part of the $2.1 million shortfall in the general fund.

The financial health of the jail district, and the county, are tied to the whims of the Administration in Washington and Congress.

La Paz County District 1 Supervisor David Plunkett was right when he said the county needs to find some way to fund the jail without federal inmates.

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