APACHE COUNTY—The ongoing feud between Eagar Mayor Bryce M. Hamblin who practices law in the county, and Round Valley Justice of the Peace Marsha Gregory, also an attorney, appears to have paused after the judge was publicly reprimanded by the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct by order dated May 19, 2020.
Last year, Judge Gregory had filed a complaint with the State Bar of Arizona alleging ethical violations against Hamblin, but the State Bar found it lacked evidence and took no action against him.
Hamblin subsequently filed a complaint against the judge with the judicial conduct commission. In rather stark language from two of the county’s most accomplished professionals, they each point blank accused each other of lying, and in her response to the commission, Gregory also accused Hamblin of “altering documents,” a belief that she still holds. It’s hard to pin point when the difficulties between these two elected officials began, but it appears that it’s been going on for years.
In fact, in a span of five years, Gregory has filed the mentioned bar complaint against Hamblin and issued two orders to show cause against him.
That is a proceeding whereby someone is called before the court to explain why he should not be held in contempt of court. Hamblin has a contract with the county to provided legal services for indigent defendants, some of whom have cases pending in Gregory’s court.
She ultimately did not find that he acted contemptuously — a contempt order against an attorney can be a very serious matter. It can result in the attorney suffering financial penalties, trouble with the State Bar and a lawyer’s malpractice insurance premiums going up.
The judicial complaint against Gregory
The judicial commission’s file on Hamblin’s complaint against Gregory exceeds 100 pages of documents including the complaint, Gregory’s response, exhibits and the commission’s order of reprimand. The commission took no action on most of the allegations against Gregory, finding a lack of evidence, similar to what the State Bar did with Gregory’s complaint against Hamblin.
But the commission did find two ethical violations against the judge — specifically it found that she did not to the letter handle possible conflict of interest issues, and found that there was an “appearance of impropriety” regarding an alleged bias against Hamblin, although “actual bias” wasn’t proven.
The conflict of interest issue arose because she is not only the elected Round Valley Justice Court justice of the peace, but she also sits as the town judge for Springerville, where her son was the prosecutor for a time during her tenure as judge and her husband is a sergeant on the police force there.
Gregory sat down with The Independent on Friday to to discuss the matter. She claimed that she was aware of the appearance of conflict before she even ran for the position, but after consulting with legal and judicial authorities, believed that she could cure any appearance of conflict.
In fact, there is indeed an ethical rule that allows a judge to hear cases if the judge discloses the apparent conflict and both sides still want that judge to hear the case. That situation isn’t unusual in small communities in the state.
She accomplished the cure by attaching the actual rule to her bench, and anytime there was a Springerville case, made her disclosures and gave each side an opportunity to have a different judge.
With regard to cases wherein her husband was involved, she point blank wouldn’t hear them. She said that most of the time, the parties waived the conflict and she heard the cases, including many of Hamblin’s who opted out of having a different judge.
But the fine print in the rule says that once the potential conflict is disclosed, the parties have to think about it outside the judge’s presence and she didn’t always order them out of the courtroom to make their decision. The commission faulted her for that. She has since started doing that with Springerville cases and her son no longer serves as the town prosecutor there.
With regard to the second issue of “appearing” to hold a bias against Mayor Hamblin, (the commission found no actual bias) the judge “respectfully disagrees” with commission, she said. Gregory explained that she actually recommended Hamblin for the defender contract because of his experience in criminal law.
The Bar complaint against Hamblin
After Hamblin started his contract, she said that she became exasperated with his conduct and “lack of respect” for the judicial office that she holds. She told the State Bar about “the many instances of disrespect over the years and stated that Mr. Hamblin was making it difficult to run court business.”
She wrote that “Mr. Hamblin’s contempt shows in his demeanor,” that Hamblin won’t sign in like everyone else does and she has had “to ask him — more than once — not to talk aside to/laugh with the prosecutor at the bench while I am trying to conduct court.”
Moreover, she claims that Hamblin didn’t show up twice for cases, such as an eviction trial.
Before she went ahead with her complaint, she talked it over with a Bar official, a screener of sorts for Bar complaints. That individual told her that, based on what she was saying about Hamblin, especially the allegedly missed court dates, that it was the screener’s belief that she was required to report Hamblin under State Bar rules.
But when Gregory formally filed a complaint, the State Bar took no action and the matter ended.
That’s when things escalated.
Hamblin wrote a letter to the presiding justice of the peace asking for permission to remove Gregory for all his cases. Any litigant, either side, has the right to “notice” a judge in a single case under the rules of court, and to get another judge.
The presiding justice of the peace met with Gregory to discuss it, but Gregory was against it. First, she said, ethical rules don’t allow a “blanket” change of judge for every case, that she isn’t biased against Hamblin, that he wins cases in her court just as often as other lawyers and, emphatically drumming her fingers on her desk told the judge, “I want him in my court!”
The presiding justice of the peace then got the Apache County Superior Court involved, which set a hearing before a three-judge panel to see what could be done. Gregory told The Independent that one of the panel judges was, at the time, the town judge of Eagar where Hamblin is mayor and therefore Hamblin’s employee. She claimed that she was not allowed to testify at that hearing or even attend.
After the hearing, the superior court issued its comments including that it was “widely known that (Gregory) does not like Mr. Hamblin,” and an attempt to mediate the conflict by the presiding justice of the peace didn’t work out so well. The mediation judge “observed (Judge Gregory’s) mannerisms expressed anger and hostility in regard to Mr. Hamblin in front of her court staff — including stabbing her finger into the counter...” and also blaming him for her not being appointed as Eagar’s town judge.
It might be noted that historically, the Round Valley justice of the peace traditionally served as town judge for Eagar as well as Springerville. Gregory had applied twice for that position, once offering to take less pay, but was not chosen.
The judicial commission latched on to the superior court’s comments as a conspicuous part of its decision against Gregory about the appearance of bias, and indeed quoted in it the commission’s order. Gregory invites anyone to visit the commission’s website and read the whole file.
Among other events Hamblin complained to the commission about was the judge allegedly appointing clients to him who had already hired him, thus “interfering with the attorney client relationship and my income,” Hamblin wrote. The commission took no action on that allegation. Gregory claims that it was in connection to that allegation that documents were altered.
Whether this latest development in the long running feud will finally put an end to it remains to be seen. For Gregory’s part, she is moving on. She said that after the commission ruled, she dropped off cookies and a little note to the players in this drama, including Hamblin. She said that he hasn’t responded.
But she at long last is not hearing Hamblin’s cases anymore. Gregory considers the whole matter as a way to improve her court and herself as a judge. Mayor Hamblin was asked by The Independent to comment, but did not respond.