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Oyez, oyez, Supreme Court comes to Verde Valley


The latest group to appear on stage at the Sedona Performing Arts Center talked about how “hot” it is, with two of its members bragging about their scorpion tattoos, playing to the preponderance of Sedona Red Rock High School students in attendance.

Although dressed in robes, the group was not Spinal Tap performing “Stonehenge.”

And the group was not exactly the Supremes ... well, wait, actually it was.

Five justices from the Arizona Supreme Court presided over oral arguments in two active cases Tuesday, April 25, at SPAC.

It was an opportunity for students, not only from host SRRHS, but the Verde Valley School, Mingus Union High School and Cottonwood Middle School to get a real-life civics lesson, according to SRRHS principal Darrin Karuzis, who called it an “epic event” at the school.

It was the brainchild of Sedona Municipal Court Judge Lew Levin, who approached Supreme Court staff with the idea about two years ago, said Heather Murphy, the court’s director of communications.

The court will usually hold these types of sessions in outlying counties it hasn’t been to in a while, she said. Sessions are also held at law schools and, recently, a secondary school in the Phoenix Valley. In addition, at the SPAC session, there were visitors from Kazakhstan who were in the U.S. to learn about the American justice system. Murphy said court staff was eager for the visitors to see the red rocks.

Sedona Mayor Sandy Moriarty and Vice Mayor John Martinez, who have already seen the red rocks, sat in on the court session.

The justices, facing the audience, sat mid-stage behind a row of tables pushed together and covered by black drapery. The court’s logo was projected on a dark curtain across the back of the stage. The lawyers were seated in the first row of the auditorium and spoke into a microphone, with digital timers set on the edge of the stage in front of them.

Each side in each case had 20 minutes to make its presentation to the justices, who questioned the lawyers, probing the nuances of their legal arguments.

Typically, the full court — seven justices — hears cases, but two were absent Tuesday because of sudden family emergencies. Vice Chief Justice John Pelander said the cases will be decided by the full court. A video of the oral arguments will be provided to the missing members of the court — Chief Justice Scott Bales and Justice Andrew Gould. All seven will then meet to discuss the merits of the cases — as they do in all cases — and reach decisions in each.

After the cases were heard, the court held a question-and-answer session for members of the audience. Among the facts revealed were these:

  • The only requirements to become a Supreme Court justice are to be at least 35 years of age and have practiced law for 10 years, according to Justice Robert Brutinel, who added with a laugh, “We’re somewhat more qualified than that.”
  • Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer said that the court chooses its cases by getting together once a month and going through petitions for review. They select about 40 or 60 cases a month based on statewide interest, conflicting decisions from lower courts, statutory and constitutional interpretation or “some things that just interest us.” Pelander, who fielded questions from the audience and assigned them to the other justices to answer, added that deathpenalty cases and election cases automatically are heard by the court. He also estimated that each month about 800 to 1,000 cases are presented for possible review.
  • Justice John R. Lopez IV was tasked with answering, “What was the most important case?” Lopez, noting that he joined the court just a few months ago, said he would defer to the others’ judgment, but said the most high-profile case was a challenge to the state’s recently enacted minimum wage law.
  • The Supreme Court has 10,000 employees, 200 court locations and 50 judicial officers, according to Pelander. n Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Arizona justices work year round, although the pace slows down in July and August, Brutinel said.
  • Justice Clint Bolick estimated that it can take three to four months for a case to go from oral argument to a decision. However, death-penalty cases take much longer because the justices review those in “extraordinary detail,” he said.
  • In response to Levin’s observation that the justices asked tough questions during oral arguments, Pelander said, “‘Oral argument’ is a bit of a misnomer. It’s really a conversation. “We’re an active, ‘hot’ court,” he said, referring to the probing questions the justices ask lawyers. “It’s not to ... put them on the hot seat, just a one-on-one conversation” about the gaps and weaknesses in their arguments, he said. Bolick added that it’s good for lawyers to “know what’s on the justices minds so [they] can address [our] concerns.”

Earlier in the Q&A, Bolick announced to the audience that he had a tattoo of a scorpion on his finger. “I’m definitely a scorpion and I feel comfortable among you.” The remark drew big laughs from the crowd given that the Sedona Red Rock High School mascot is the Scorpions.

Even more laughs came when Lopez later said he had a scorpion tattooed across his back. He provided no evidence to support his assertion.

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