Mecham attorneys fail to win delay in impeachment trial

February 27, 1988

Associated Press

PHOENIX, Ariz. — A last-minute plea by Gov. Evan Mecham’s new defense team failed to win a delay in his impeachment trial as the Arizona Supreme Court refused to intercede.

The four justices who heard his appeal for an emergency stay Friday cited constitutional separation of powers in refusing to intervene in the trial scheduled to begin in the state Senate Monday.

However, they said they would consider a more detailed request during the court’s regular conference Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Alan Stephens, a Democrat, predicted the justices would not interfere with the nation’s first impeachment trial of a governor in half a century.

The court’s rebuff to Mecham capped a turbulent day for the first-term Republican governor, who also faces criminal charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan.

First, Mecham’s chief lawyer, Murray Miller of Phoenix, disclosed he had resigned. He said Jerris Leonard, a Washington lawyer and former assistant attorney general under President Nixon, was taking charge.

“We brought in a number of new people and Murray chose to leave,” Mecham told The Associated Press Friday night. “We parted as friends. I’ve got the best of representation.”

Leonard and another addition to the defense team, Thomas Crowe, promptly launched a last-ditch effort to win a delay that the Senate had refused to grant Wednesday night.

By late Friday afternoon, they had filed a stack of legal documents with the Supreme Court, and the emergency hearing was granted.

Crowe argued that the governor’s constitutional right to due process would be violated if the Senate judged him before a jury trial scheduled to begin March 22 on the criminal charges. The Arizona Civil Liberties Union filed a friend-of-the-court brief making the same argument.

The justices immediately expressed concern about breaching the separation of judicial and legislative powers.

“Even if I agreed with everything you said in your papers,” said Vice Chief Justice Stanley Feldman, “what jurisdiction does this court have to tell the Senate what to do in a job that the constitution says should be done by the Senate and not the judiciary?”

Feldman presided in place of Chief Justice Frank X. Gordon, who recused himself because the state constitution requires him to preside over the impeachment trial.

Attorney John Lundin, representing the Senate, told the justices: “You are being asked to enter an arena that has never been entered into by any court in this nation.” He said they should decline to take that step.

Mecham was impeached Feb. 5 on a 46-14 House vote, forcing him to turn over power temporarily to Secretary of State Rose Mofford.

Several days later, the House approved 23 impeachment articles, charging Mecham with concealing the $350,000 loan to his 1986 campaign, misusing $80,000 from the governor’s protocol fund by lending it to his auto dealership, and trying to thwart an investigation of an alleged death threat by a state official.

Miller, who had represented Mecham since October, bowed out abruptly. At first he would not say why, but later expressed bitterness at the way Leonard had walked into his office early in the week and announced that Mecham had hired him to take over the case.

He said Leonard, who entered the case Tuesday, told him he could not begin such a complex case by Monday because “that would be malpractice.” But he said Leonard later changed his mind.

On Friday night, Leonard and Crowe filed a certification with the Senate that they are ready to proceed.

Among those opposing Leonard’s participation in the case were partners of his own law firm. He was forced to resign from the prestigious Washington firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney and Evans because of his decision to represent Mecham.

Charles T. Manatt, senior partner in the firm and a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said the firm wasn’t interested in representing Mecham for “lots of reasons,” but would not elaborate.