From Trials to Weddings

Pima County's newest justice of the peace reflects on her job

As she anxiously waited for her extreme DUI case to be heard, a fashionably dressed 22-year old woman covered her face fearfully with her hands. Near her in the courtroom, an older woman fidgeted nervously with a notebook as her husband talked about his DUI case with an attorney.

At the same time, a 70-year-old man stood in front of Justice of the Peace Anne Fisher Segal and pleaded guilty to drinking and driving. In addition to jail time and more than $2,700 in fines, which he'd be allowed to pay off $50 a month, he was sentenced to attend frequent Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In between periodic cases, much of the morning's courtroom business involved arranging times to hear other DUI cases. "It's all about accountability," Segal says (speaking for herself and not the court as a whole) of the often lengthy legal process.

As the sometimes-confusing negotiations took place between Segal and various attorneys regarding scheduling, people kept filing in and out of the courtroom. They waited their turns to stand before the judge; most of them were ready to plead guilty to DUI after a short proceeding.

"People think, 'I'm not drunk'," Segal says. "But it's a matter of impairment. No one plans on getting arrested. But if you violate the law, you must anticipate getting arrested. The penalties for DUI are very serious, and the fines can't be waived."

Segal has no qualms with those penalties. "Where the consequences to innocent people are so motivating," she says of DUI, "the penalties are appropriate."

To let people know about the severity of DUI punishments, Segal gives talks to organizations. She also wants to hear a case at Catalina Foothills High School, which is in her district, "because the kids pay more attention."

Segal estimates that up to 90 percent of DUI defendants plead guilty—and there are hundreds of them each month in the Pima County court system. In March of this year alone, 470 DUI cases were filed; thankfully, that's a substantial drop from the 615 filed in March 2008.

"I don't want people to be terrified," Segal says about defendants in her courtroom. "Plus, I don't want them to get a second DUI offense."

Segal is the newest member of Pima County's eight-judge justice court system, after being elected to her post last November from a northside district. She calls her colleagues "well-educated, thoughtful and considerate," while also heaping praise on the court staff.

Her office, labeled a "former closet" by its current tenant, is in the historic old county courthouse downtown.

"This building has a beautiful exterior," Segal observes, "but it's not well-functioning ... It's not secure, and not particularly dignified. We are the people's court, yet (this building) doesn't give people much dignity."

Working more than 50 hours per week for her annual salary of $101,500, Segal's schedule has her hearing misdemeanor cases on Monday, DUIs on Tuesday, jury trials on Wednesday and Thursday, and civil cases on Friday. To prepare, she says, she has to come in on weekends to read material.

"I don't have a moment," Segal says of her busy schedule as she skipped lunch recently during a short break between morning and afternoon sessions. "But it's the most interesting job in the world."

It is a position which Segal—a Democrat—doesn't believe should be filled through partisan elections.

"Our decisions aren't based on party affiliation, but on the Constitution," she says. "The partisan policy is a remnant of the Old West."

Segal thinks she is well-suited to the job. "You have to be good at making decisions," she says, "and I'm able to be reasonable and rationale."

Segal points out that most of those who appear before her are definitely not hardened criminals. "Instead, it's the first contact they've had with the legal system, and everyone is very respectful."

Especially respectful were the dozens of couples congregating outside of the courthouse on a recent Friday evening, waiting to be married. Wearing everything from casual wear to formal bridal attire, the people waited in a line that wound out of the courthouse, a rainbow of ethnicities and religions reflecting Tucson's diversity.

With several pieces of framed artwork—including two posters comprised of heart shapes—decorating her courtroom's walls, Segal was one of the four judges marrying people on this evening. The grooms and brides to be would be assigned to judges by the staff on a rotating basis and enter the small courtroom one group at a time.

Before the wedding parties started arriving, Segal donned her black robe and rearranged the potted plastic bamboo tree at the front of the room.

The first couple Segal married in a five-minute ceremony was dressed in ironed jeans and white shirts. They were older and were accompanied by seven acquaintances, including a giggling flower girl. The newlyweds ended the ceremony with a short kiss befitting their age.

In flip flops and jeans, the next couple—20-somethings—held hands and smiled broadly throughout the proceedings. Their first kiss as a married couple went on for quite awhile, bringing a few snide comments from the handful of friends accompanying them.

It just goes to show: "The people in this court are just regular people," Segal says, on Pima County's justice court system.

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