Supreme Court refuses to delay Mecham’s impeachment trial

February 26, 1988

By LINDA DEUTSCH
Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Arizona’s Supreme Court on Friday refused to delay the start of Gov. Evan Mecham’s immpeachment trial on Monday but did not rule out blocking the proceedings later.

The ruling came in an emergency session during which the governor’s lawyers cited danger to his constitutional rights and the justices expressed concern about breaching the separation of judicial and legislative powers.

The high court said it would decide on Tuesday — one day after the Senate trial is to begin — whether to issue an injunction against it.

In another development, Mecham’s chief attorney has withdrawn from Mecham’s case.

Thomas Crowe, another attorney for the first-term Republican, had told the high court that Mecham’s rights would be violated if an impeachment trial were held before related criminal charges were heard in court.

But John Lundin, representing the Senate, told the justices they were “being asked to enter an arena that has never been entered into by any court in this nation” and suggested they refrain from breaking such new ground.

The justices indicated by questions that they were reluctant to interfere with legislative matters in light of the state constitution’s separation of powers.

“I don’t think one can say that fundamental rights of fair play don’t apply to impeachment proceedings. But who decides what is fair play? Isn’t it the Senate that decides what the rules are?” said Vice Chief Justice Stanley Feldman.

Feldman said he believed that the framers of the constitution “wanted to keep us out of” matters involving legislative bodies.

Feldman presided in place of Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon, who has removed himself from such matters because he will preside over the impeachment trial.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that Mecham’s right to a fair trial on criminal charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan would be violated if the Senate proceeding were held first.

“We are taking no position on the impeachment,” said ACLU lawyer Alice Bendheim. “But we are asking that the state Supreme Court ensure that Governor Mecham gets due process.”

Senators, who previously delayed the trial’s start a week, refused earlier this week to give Crowe and Washington attorney Jerris Leonard more time to prepare the governor’s defense.

Mecham was impeached Feb. 5 on a 46-14 House vote. Several days later the House approved 23 impeachment articles, the equivalent of an indictment in a criminal case. They outlined details of three broad charges against the first- term Republican: that he concealed a $350,000 loan to his 1986 campaign, misused $80,000 from the governor’s protocol fund by lending it to his auto dealership, and tried to thwart an investigation of an alleged death threat by a state official.

Murray Miller, who has represented Mecham since October, withdrew from the case abruptly, saying Friday that he decided late Thursday night to drop out.

He said Leonard was now in charge of the defense. But he expressed uncertainty at whether Leonard, who was hired by the governor Tuesday, could be prepared to proceed on Monday.

However, Leonard said, “I think Evan Mecham is entitled to the best representation he can get. I don’t say this braggadociously at all, but if he feels he wants me, he should be entitled to have the lawyer of his choice.”

Miller declined to elaborate on his reasons for bowing out but he said he hoped senators would not suspect he had deceived them about his role in the case. As late as Wednesday night, he said,”I was fully in charge of the case and defending the governor.”

Senate Majority leader Robert Usdane, a Republican, said he suspected the change of lawyers was planned and was a delaying tactic by Mecham.

“Anything to try and tie this thing up until May 17th,” he said, referring to the date when the Republican governor faces a recall election. “We are not going to do that.”

Senate Minority Leader Alan Stephens, a Democrat, said, “I see no reason to delay.”

“I think it is absolutely disgusting and an outrage …,” said Assistant Minority Leader Lela Alston. “I think it’s part of the governor’s strategy to continue delays.”

Miller, denying any devious actions, said, “My main concern is that the governor gets a fair legal shake.”

Mecham did not immediately return a telephone call Friday from The Associated Press, but The Arizona Daily Star of Tucson on Friday quoted him as saying: “Murray withdrew from the case. We parted friendly, but that’s really all. You’ll have to ask him why.”

Impeachment prosecutor William French said Miller will be required to submit a motion on Monday seeking Senate permission to withdraw from the case. French said he may oppose the motion if he believes Miller’s withdrawal might be used for a later claim that the new attorneys did not have time to prepare for the trial.

Leonard was in his office but sent word through a secretary that he was too busy to talk to a reporter who visited his office Friday.

Leonard has resigned from the Washington law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney and Evans because of his decision to represent Mecham, said Charles T. Manatt, a senior partner in the firm.

“Jerris Leonard informed the firm last week that he had been contacted by Governor Mecham concerning representation,” said Manatt. “We made it clear that the firm was not interested in representing Governor Mecham, and Mr. Leonard informed us that he has resigned from the firm.”

Manatt, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was asked why his firm wasn’t interested in being associated with the Mecham case. “Lots of reasons, you can well imagine,” he replied.

The beleaguered Mecham also faces a a March 22 criminal trial on charges of concealing the $350,000 campaign loan. Miller has dropped out of that case too.

Miller had repeatedly pleaded to have the criminal trial heard first, contending that widely publicized Senate proceedings would prejudice potential jurors.

Senators have voiced suspicions that Mecham wanted to fight for his job in the recall election before the Senate trial because the Senate has the power to bar him from ever holding public office again if he is convicted.