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Conflicts over health protocols preceded COVID-19 cases at Tucson courthouse
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Conflicts over health protocols preceded COVID-19 cases at Tucson courthouse

Pima County Consolidated Justice Court

Pima County Consolidated Justice Court building

Two Pima County Justice Court judges have been criticized internally for ignoring precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19, and recently at least four courthouse employees tested positive for the virus.

Emails provided to the Arizona Daily Star show there has been significant conflict about these issues between judges at the Consolidated Justice Court in recent weeks. Three women on the bench have been asking for more to be done to enforce coronavirus protocols before someone got sick.

“At the time I made the decision to work remotely, I was convinced that Judge (Vince) Roberts and (Judge Adam) Watters were being reckless with the health of others in a number of ways,” Judge Erica Cornejo wrote in an Oct. 22 email to Superior Court Presiding Judge Kyle Bryson, who has administrative supervision of Justice Court.

“They allow too many people into the courtroom and they do not enforce the mask rule.”

Cornejo wrote to Bryson that when she tried to address the issue directly after reportedly observing Roberts and Watters “not wearing masks on the bench and around the courthouse,” she was denigrated.

“At the time, I sent an email to the bench as a whole reminding them that mask wearing is vital to the health and safety of our staff,” she wrote. ‘When I specifically called on Judge Watters to comply, he called my reaction a ‘histrionic over-reaction’ in an email.”

She went on to explain to Bryson that she recognized Watters was using a “gendered term” to silence her, that she did not push the matter any further “and for that I am ashamed that his attempts to intimidate me worked.”

Watters, who is the presiding judge at Justice Court, has not responded to interview requests, nor has he answered questions emailed to him by the Arizona Daily Star.

“The work environment is extremely hostile under Roberts and Watters’ leadership,” Judge Charlene Pesquiera wrote in an email to Bryson on Oct. 23. Pesquiera asked Bryson why the two judges are “still in leadership when they clearly have a pattern of bullying and disregard for the rules.”

An email sent Thursday by Kent Batty, the interim court administrator, explained four employees at the court, 240 N. Stone Ave., have tested positive. Batty urged people to diligently follow safely protocols including wearing masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing.

There is no evidence that the alleged problems in two of the courtrooms led to positive coronavirus cases.

Public Defender Joel Feinman became concerned about his attorneys working at the courthouse and recently wrote to Chuck Huckelberry, the county’s administrator, and to Bryson about protocols he said were not being followed.

“On Oct. 20, I had the opportunity to observe in-person court proceedings with Honorable Judge Watters in JP Precinct 1, and Honorable Judge Roberts in JP Precinct 10,” Feinman wrote. “Neither of these judges nor their clerks were wearing any kind of protective mask or face shield, and the only Plexiglas shield was placed in front of Judge Roberts’ clerk.”

Batty, in an email sent after Feinman’s memorandum, said efforts were underway to install Plexiglas barriers in every courtroom.

Feinman said the judges in the other eight precincts “either hold their hearings virtually or by telephone, or practice all necessary COVID precautions and abide by the relevant administrative orders when they do conduct in-person hearings.”

“This is what happens when we don’t take COVID seriously,” Feinman said of the positive cases. “There should be some health department oversight of COVID precautions at the Justice Court. It should not be up to some lawyer wandering into a random courtroom on a random day.”

Roberts, associate presiding judge of Justice Court, responded to Arizona Daily Star questions by email Monday and said he disagrees with what people are saying. Roberts said participants in his courtroom “have always been required to wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines” with certain exceptions.

“The Supreme Court (Administrative Order) allows for the removal of masks for testimonial purposes to assure everything I state and subsequently order, is clear to the participants and the record,” Roberts wrote. “Additionally, there are times when I require a participant to remove their mask so that I can hear them as well.”

Bryson did not respond to an interview request Monday but did provide a statement:

“When we got word there was an uptick in in-person court appearances in justice court, we immediately notified the bench that allowing in-person appearances without a showing of good cause was premature, as we were — and still are — operating under the terms of Chief Justice Robert Brutinel’s administrative order, which requires the use of technology to conduct court events as much as practicable. The vast majority of cases are managed in that fashion,” he wrote.

“Additionally, none of the infected staff works directly with the judges or in the courtrooms. Court administration has had additional disinfectant fogging completed in the affected areas and is instituting still stronger practices for regular disinfecting.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

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