BENSON - Justice of the Peace Bruce Staggs has confirmed he is the subject of two open complaints filed earlier this year with the Arizona Commission of Judicial Conduct (CJC).
Justices of the peace are elected to four-year terms within a defined area of the county to handle criminal misdemeanors, forcible detainers and evictions, orders for protection, and search warrant orders. They also set court budgets, ensure compliance with court rules, and manage their courthouse staff.
Staggs, who was elected to the Precinct 3 post in November 2014, won a three-candidate Republican primary in August and is on the Nov. 6 ballot against Benson businessman Del Thola. He was informed in April that a former employee of the Benson Justice Court filed a misconduct complaint with the CJC.
A few weeks later a current member of the judge’s staff filed a 41-item complaint about misconduct alleged to have occurred from late 2014 to early 2018. Nearly one-half of the items involve issues within the first two years of Staggs’ term.
The judge recently met with the News-Sun to share his detailed written responses to the CJC on allegations such as case-handling errors, improper political activity, ethical issues, and a hostile work environment.
“My integrity and character have been challenged in both the complaints,” Staggs said. “I have been able to supply written court documents to conclusively disprove the majority of both complaints.”
However, Staggs intends to wait until the commission's review is complete before he publicly comments on matters directly related to his staff.
Staggs noted in his CJC response that he made some mistakes on the bench early on and has had to correct a few rulings during his term. One such case is mentioned in the CJC complaints.
In the case, Staggs held a misdemeanor trial and convicted a man who’d not been properly arraigned on the charge.
“The oversight was noted that very same day,” Staggs said, adding that he issued an order that corrected the mistake. “Should the CJC discipline me for failing to arraign the defendant, I will respectfully accept this, as I did make the mistake.
The News-Sun confirmed the defendant did not serve additional jail time due to the error.
Staggs also expressed frustration to the CJC about some allegations related to employee relations. He noted the court’s human resource department in Bisbee did not share information although it directly impacts operations for which he is responsible.
He also noted one of the complaints included photographs taken inside his chambers by someone who violated his privacy by searching through items in the room. The judge’s chambers are not accessible to the public, Staggs said.
One of the CJC complaints mentions last year’s transfer of Benson Justice Court’s longtime manager to another justice court. The transfer order by Presiding Judge James Conlogue of the Cochise County Superior Court came after the court manager’s husband announced his candidacy against Staggs.
The News-Sun has confirmed the former court manager did not submit either complaint and that Staggs was not involved in the transfer order.
A CJC staff attorney has been appointed to the two complaints but the agency does not comment on the status of complaints, according to Arizona Supreme Court spokeswoman Heather Murphy.
The majority of complaints to the commission don’t involve misconduct, according to CJC reports. Of the 330 complaints to the CJC in 2017, 289 were dismissed and 35 were dismissed with a non-public advisory letter issued to the judicial officer.
The CJC issues a non-public advisory letter if they find the alleged conduct doesn’t rise to misconduct but feel a reminder or clarification needs to be provided to a judicial officer.
Misconduct serious enough to warrant discipline was found in only six cases of those 2017 cases, three of which resulted in public reprimand. The other three resulted in public censure. There hasn’t been a judicial suspension or removal from office since 2014, Murphy said.
Staggs announced earlier this year he received a CJC non-public advisory letter after he self-reported some of his election activities. He also revealed to the News-Sun he received another advisory letter related to his handling of a court hearing.
The existence of those complaints wouldn’t have been known by the public had Staggs not disclosed them.