Phoenix— Driving on the open road is as American as apple pie—and so is getting pulled over for a traffic violation. But what’s not so American is that in many states, those who go to court over their violation are not guaranteed to have a fair hearing. This is because traffic violations are likely to be handled by city courts—and as a new investigative report released today by the Goldwater Institute explains, city court judges are beholden to city councils—the political branch of government—which hinder their ability to ensure due process rights.
City Court: Money, Power and Politics Make It Tough to Beat the Rap by the Goldwater Institute’s Mark Flatten looks into the ways in which city courts in several states are influenced by political forces. In the state of Arizona, more than half of all cases are handled in city court, totaling more than 1 million cases every year. But unlike many other states, city court judges in the Grand Canyon State never have to face voters through elections; rather, the city councils appoint city court judges, retain them, and can fire them at any time if council members determine there is sufficient cause.
Furthermore, city courts can receive pressure—direct or indirect—from political office holders to raise more money to help meet revenue projections, which puts their judicial independence into question. In Arizona, almost half of all the money generated by the court system in the state comes from the city courts.
“The danger of political pressures skewing city court decisions is not just a hypothetical concern, nor just an Arizona concern,” explains Flatten. “After the shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in Ferguson, Missouri, found that city officials pressured city judges to continually raise revenue, which they did through abusive and potentially illegal fees for minor infractions. Many of those tactics are standard practice in Arizona and other states.”
In Arizona, multiple task forces since the 1950s have recommended the elimination of municipal courts and taking away the power of city councils to appoint judges.
Along with this new investigative report, the Goldwater Institute is also releasing a set of policy recommendations to address problems in the city court system and better protect the rights of ordinary citizens. “It’s not the people involved who are bad—it’s the system that’s bad,” says Timothy Sandefur, vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute. “The city court system in states like Arizona impedes due process protections, and it disproportionately hurts people who are unable to pay steep fines. Fixing the system will require substantive change, like consolidating city courts into the county court system or making city court judges answerable to voters.”
About the Goldwater Institute
The Goldwater Institute drives results by working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and strengthen the freedom guaranteed to all Americans in the constitutions of the United States and all 50 states. With the blessing of its namesake, the Goldwater Institute opened in 1988. Its early years focused on defending liberty in Barry Goldwater’s home state of Arizona. Today, the Goldwater Institute is a national leader for constitutionally limited government respected by the left and right for its adherence to principle and real world impact. No less a liberal icon than the New York Times calls the Goldwater Institute a “watchdog for conservative ideals” that plays an “outsize role” in American political life.