I had one hearing yesterday afternoon, and it was in Pinal County. The Pinal County Superior Court is about an hour from my office, give or take a few minutes, but I find myself there quite a bit. It’s a fascinating place. Yesterday, it was a confusing, frustrating place.
The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office recently announced that attorneys would no longer be allowed to visit with their in-custody clients in the inmate holding area prior to court. The new policy is for security reasons, apparently, and it means that there’s no way to speak with a client prior to a hearing unless you go see him or her in jail.
Seeing a client in jail is no small feat. If you want to do an “in-person” visit in a tiny booth where you’re separated from your client by thick, cloudy glass and have to yell at each other or talk on phones that rarely work, you must give the jail 24 hours advance notice. If you want to do an “intake” visit and sit in a cramped little room with your client, it takes 24 hours advance notice and a special reason. To set up such a visit, you have to get approval from someone who does not answer the phone very much and whose voice mailbox varies from not being set up to being set up but seemingly never monitored. By my count, there are now only three places in the entire jail where an attorney can actually sit across from an in-custody client. For the last-minute visit, the only option is a video visit. Pinal County has four attorney video visitation booths for that.
A number of things made me want to see my client before court. First, she had a lot of questions and wrote me a letter detailing many of them. I received her letter near the end of the day on Friday and could not see her over the weekend. Second, and more importantly, the assigned judge mysteriously evacuated her office and seems to have vanished, leaving little more than courthouse rumors about what happened. Strange, I know. A different judge heard the case yesterday and may be doing the sentencing. I could not confirm that until yesterday morning before the hearing. Certainly quite a change, and certainly something my client would’ve wanted to know before being led into a big, cold courtroom by detention officers to stand in front of an unfamiliar judge. I wanted to see her.
When an inmate has an afternoon hearing, the jail transports him or her pretty far in advance. My experience is that clients with a 1:30 p.m. hearing tend to be unavailable after 11:00 a.m., so I intended to visit my client after I was done with my 8:30 a.m. hearing about 45 minutes away. In an abundance of caution, when I finished up with my 8:30 a.m., I called the Pinal County jail to confirm that I could do a video visit with my client. Good thing I did; it turned out the video visitation system was down, so I would’ve unnecessarily sat in Florence, Arizona for hours before my hearing without talking with my client if I had gone early. Despite my good intentions, I didn’t get to see my client.
Because of the change in judge, I also had to select a new date for a pre-sentence hearing, or what most attorneys around here call an “agg-mit” hearing. In Pinal County, only a specific judge’s assistant, or “JA” as attorneys around here tend to call them, can tell you that judge’s calendar. I knew I had to get the date from a JA, but the problem in my client’s case was determining which JA. I went to the new judge’s JA first, but she was out of the office. A sign said to go to the JA next door. I peeked my head in next door and saw no one. Next, I went to the assigned judge’s JA. It turned out she was gone too, something I learned from another member of the assigned judge’s staff who was sitting in an empty room doing a puzzle. She told me it was lonely with no one else around and that she had no clue where I should go. I ended up running into a JA who happened to have the correct calendar in the hallway.
Unfortunately, there was one final snag in my plan to get a new date. The snag was the prosecutor, who was not there either. Like pretty much everyone else, she was out for the day. Her coverage notes said something like “need to select agg-mit date,” and her assistant didn’t have her calendar. He actually didn’t know she was gone until I asked him to check and he wandered around a little before coming up to court and telling me she was gone. The coverage prosecutor didn’t know her availability either, so I ended up selecting a date on which I couldn’t imagine she would have a conflict. I’m giving myself a 50/50 chance of having to go through the process again when she gets back and decides she doesn’t like the date and time I selected.
So here’s the rundown of my afternoon yesterday in Pinal County: I had a hearing in front of a judge who disappeared. I needed to see my client beforehand but couldn’t because the sheriff’s office took away the easy, logical option and the only other option they gave me wasn’t available. I needed a new hearing date, so because judges don’t know their own schedules, I tried to consult with two missing JAs to find a new date for a hearing before happening upon the right JA in the hallway. I finally selected a date and time and affirmed them on the record, but I will probably have to redo everything because the prosecutor didn’t show up or leave adequate coverage notes.
Quite the well-oiled machine they’ve got there.