Will the Departure of America’s Worst Prosecutor Even Improve Matters?

    People sometimes ask who is the worst prosecutor in America, from a human rights standpoint. Most would answer that it depends on what the person asking is most concerned about. But looking at the question holistically, it is hard to get worse than Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

    Bill Montgomery has been called the “biggest obstacle” to criminal justice reform in Arizona, which is unsurprising once you realize that Maricopa County constitutes more than half the state’s total population. Effectively, the Maricopa County Attorney is the highly influential Arizona County Attorneys’ Association, Arizona’s equivalent of a DA association elsewhere.

    Montgomery, who took office in 2010 and just resigned in order to take a seat on Arizona’s unanimously Republican Supreme Court, once took away a dying five-year-old’s legal medical marijuana for seizures, so he could persecute his parents. He overcharged undocumented immigrants as identity thieves to permanently bar them from the country. And he paid tax dollars for disgraced FBI agent John Guandoloan anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who was later banned from Twitter for encouraging mass violence against Democratsto indoctrine Arizona’s cops through so-called “counter-terrorism” seminars.

    Yet Montgomery’s departure might not be much reason for Maricopa County’s residents to cheer. Now Rachel Mitchell is in command of his old post.

    Montgomery also kept accused serial sexual harasser Juan Martinez as a homicide prosecutor, and cheered as US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was appointed despite allegations of attempted rape.

    Yet Montgomery’s departure might not be much reason for Maricopa County’s residents to cheer. Now Rachel Mitchell, the very woman whom Montgomery sent to Washington to give Kavanaugh as sympathetic an interrogation as possible, is in command of his old post.

    Shockingly, Mitchell was the chief of Montgomery’s sex crimes unit when—in the report on the Kavanaugh allegations that she was hired to compile for Republican senatorsshe called Christine Blasey Ford’s claims “even weaker” than a “‘he said, she said’ case” of sexual assault.

    Fortunately, Mitchell may only be a temporary chief prosecutor, as the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will ultimately decide on Montgomery’s replacement until the end of his present term. But Mitchell has confirmed that she will run for the office in 2020, which is one of the Board’s requirements for the interim role. Another is being a Republican.

    Either way, Montgomery stepping down has triggered a manic rush of Republican candidatesincluding Gina Godbehere, a long-term deputy prosecutor in his office; Allister Adel, an Administrative Law Judge and former local prosecutor; and Rodney Glassman, a former Democrat who converted after he was stomped by John McCain in the 2010 US Senate race.

    A few other Republicans also voiced interest in applying and running, like John Kaites, a lobbyist and career politician who “sponsored the final draft of the Arizona Criminal Code and the Arizona Juvenile Justice Code,” and Jon Eliason, a Maricopa County prosecutor who trains underlings that each domestic violence case must be prosecuted “like a murder,” regardless of the survivor’s wishes. Former County Attorney Rick Romley, whose record includes the flawed handling of the case of Ray Krone, an innocent man convicted of murder, also says he would be interested in finishing out Montgomery’s term, but has zero interest in running for the seat in 2020.

    Each of these candidates would come with their own baggage.

    Elected local prosecutors who stand down often hand-pick a successor to further their legacy and policy agenda, which means it will be assumed Montgomery chose Mitchell for this purpose, unless he endorses someone else publicly.

    Adel is at least friendly with Montgomery, as she made sure to congratulate him after he gained even broader powers to wreck strangers’ lives. Glassman has been described as a “political socialite,” and with five different college degrees, could be pegged as unfocused.

    On the Democratic side, all three candidates vying for Montgomery’s seat in 2020Julie Gunnigle, Ryan Tait and Robert McWhirterhave already declared that they would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases. That’s a big deal for an area where simple possession is a felonyand where then-County Attorney Bill Montgomery called a Vietnam veteran “an enemy” for smoking it.

    Arizona is the eighth-most incarcerated state in the country, and the next Maricopa County Attorney could have a tremendous impact in bringing that number downor the opposite.


    Photo of former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery by Gage Skidmore via Flickr/Creative Commons

    • Rory Fleming

      Rory is the founder of Foglight Strategies, a campaign research services firm for forward-thinking prosecutors nationwide. He previously worked for the Fair Punishment Project, which was founded as a joint project of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and its Criminal Justice Institute. Rory is a licensed Minnesota attorney.

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