Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Democracy on Life Support?

Has this 233 year experience outlasted its usefulness? This question keeps coming to mind as I recall being taught somewhere along the line that even as far back as the latter part of the last century our form of government was the most enduring on record. And why not? As Winston Churchill famously remarked "… democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms...."

But I can't but wonder if it is winding down at this point. Last Saturday, in the second week of December, I was making my usual rounds to the YMCA and the Farmer's Market while listening to NPR. A report was issuing forth from Washington D.C. about the unprecedented Senate session on the second consecutive Saturday in December.

Just about then I passed the parking lot of a large commercial center. In a prominent corner there was an amalgamation of Maricopa County Sheriff's vehicles, including busses, ribboned by caution tape. I recalled the news article that Sheriff Joe was conducting operation Bad Parent and seeking to execute on some 1500 arrest warrants issued for back child support. To his credit he was conducting a toy drive for the unfortunate issue of these ne'er do wells who have now cost the public triple for their reticence to fund their own children: first by causing the state to pay support for the kids (the myriad programs that we fund to feed, educate and provide health care for the young innocents), the legal costs of assessing the unremitting parent for the amount that, based on their income they should have been paying (which is no where near the actual cost incurred in the whole legal charade) and now the law enforcement resources for hunting them down and adding their care and feeding to the list of ever growing state expenses. [I suspect the actual cost of dealing with these bums far and away eclipses any return on that investment, but who would ever pay to study that?]

In my mental free association I got to thinking about the recent antics of the Sheriff and our County Attorney as chronicled that morning in Laurie Robert's column: Indictment of two county supervisors, criminal charges against a county judge who coincidentally had found in contempt a Sheriff's office detention officer who was out of jail while his case is on appeal to the same court where the presiding judge went to block a possible search warrant even as the Sheriff has just submitted a request for a $7 million budget appropriation from the half-indicted Board of Supervisors to retain even more high powered legal advice to keep this kind of stuff up. [And yes, there is a whole corollary of similar shenanigans on the Supervisors side of the equation.]

Meanwhile, at the capitol, the state is literally bankrupt and fringe party elements are being stripped of Senate committee chairmanships via the wholesale elimination of the committees while the Governor's call for a temporary sales tax increase is so far behind the eight ball that it could not even get on the ballot and become effective in this fiscal year which is half over but already nearing a zero balance in the coffers that fund its very existence.

Simultaneously, the corporation commission is hearing a water rate case for several hinterland populations that involves such complexities and vagaries that dozens of "experts" are needed to evaluate the calculations of the proposed rates which will represent up to 200% increases for water users who themselves have no experts or money to hire them but are irate and activated never the less.

It struck me that the fundamental problem with the evolution of democracy is that politicians exist for power and the easiest way to do get it is to erect extremely complex and wide ranging programs that contain volumes of rules and regulations so dense and complicated that even the experts have trouble discerning and assembling them. One certainty is that there are inevitably holes in these regulatory schemes which require constant tinkering, thus rendering them incomprehensible over time as it is never clear just which version is applicable when. But it certainly represents job security for a huge panoply of players all of whom are funded, in one way or another, by the people at the bottom of the food chain for they hold the least amount of power.

That might be OK but for the fact that each and every one of these regulatory schemes presents opportunity for corruption through the use and misapplication of the power amassed by the people (and "experts") who are in charge of interpreting and applying them. The complete lack of notice to the public that results causes each and every one of us to, at any given time, be in jeopardy of unwittingly committing a violation of a civil or criminal nature without even knowing that the broken rule even exists.

The fact is that, like so many high profile folks in Maricopa County, we are all indictable.

As bad as all of the above sounds, it is merely scratching the surface of the endemic problems we are currently facing as a society within our political organizations at every level from the HOA on up. It is like Atlas Shrugged at the Animal Farm and the dish ran away with the spoon.

Even as I write this the guilt is rising up. I absolutely hate it when people criticize but don't offer up an alternative.

But frankly, I think it is time to start over. The question is how to do that without literally blowing it all up first. I am still mulling that over.

In the meantime, most of us will blithely go about trying to make it through each work day we are allotted between furloughs so we can get home and escape into our second lives facilitated through the constant and equally dumbfounding advances of technology – like porn and video games and serial affairs and facebook and movies and TV shows and Dan Brown novels and burning our own CDs (which is not as easy as it looks, much like every technology-based pursuit I undertake) and the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night football. Who knows how much longer any of this will last. Might as well enjoy it while we can.

But if you think of a better system give me a call. I will pass it along to the next generation so they can implement it. I think the boomers have jumped the shark for sure.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Judicial Reality-I Could Not Have Said it Better Myself

Phoenix Republic "My Turn" article, 12.9.09

Frank J. Conti is the elected Justice of the Peace for the Dreamy Draw Justice Court, which serves northeast Phoenix and parts of Paradise Valley and Scottsdale. You can reach Judge Conti at

It’s not that the judge doesn’t care

There are times when serving as a judge is an extraordinarily trying task. This is especially so in our current tough economic times, when many people in dire financial straits are involved in litigation.

Maricopa County's 25 justice courts must handle tens of thousands of debt collection and eviction cases a year, most resulting in displacement and/or bankruptcy for unfortunate families.

Recently a distraught woman appeared before me as a defendant in an eviction matter. Crying and nearly hysterical, she asked why the government is bailing out homeowners who can't pay their mortgage but does nothing for those who can't pay their rent. She implored me to take action to help her.

Unfortunately the law does not permit a judge the luxury of weighing the misfortune of all those who cannot pay their rent and choosing who is worthy of “a break” and who isn’t. No human being could accurately perform such a task. I had no authority to step into the landlord-tenant relationship and fashion a new bargain that the parties had not reached on their own accord. Nor could I grant her license to live on another’s property without paying rent as required in the lease agreement.

All I could do was ensure that her legal rights were protected and refer her to a social service relief agency to assist her in coping with the result.

Although it provided her little comfort, I explained the role of a judge in our legal system. A judge takes an oath to follow the constitution and laws, and cannot create new law from the bench in an effort to reach a desired result in a particular case. Sometimes the facts are heart-wrenching, and the temptation is great to muddy what the law clearly mandates.

It is at such moments that a judge must remain true to the oath of office. To do otherwise is to assume powers that do not properly come with a seat on the bench.

For instance, when the law says that a judge “may” do something, it allows wide discretion. When it says that a judge “shall” do something, it leaves no discretion at all. And in Arizona the law does not recognize financial hardship as a defense to the nonpayment of rent.

If I rewrite the law to suit my fancy in every case I render the law meaningless, and essentially make myself a legislator. If every judge acted in this way the law would mean whatever a particular judge felt it should mean on any given day, rather than what our elected representatives intended it to mean. Such a whimsical judicial philosophy confounds the notion of equal justice for all.

When judges do not limit themselves to the written word it creates uncertainty bordering on legal anarchy, as there would then be no reliable, consistent way for those who use our courts to measure the strength of their cases or predict outcomes. Fewer cases would reach settlement, clogging dockets that are already overcrowded.

So the next time you are in court and see your local justice of the peace apologize, hesitate, sigh deeply or wince before rendering a decision, you can probably guess that the judge is humbly doing what the law requires, rather than what the heart desires.
Frank J. Conti is the elected Justice of the Peace for the Dreamy Draw Justice Court, which serves northeast Phoenix and parts of Paradise Valley and Scottsdale. You can reach Judge Conti at

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Talented Boys with a Big Message

Check out this you tube performance. The kid on the right is practically a family member.