Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

August 9, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan


  • Justice Michael Ryan recently retired from the state’s High Court after a judicial career that spans more than two decades. During that time, he presided over the criminal trial of former Governor Evan Mecham, the AzScam political corruption trial, and the Phoenix Suns drug case. Hear what Justice Ryan has to say about his career and the state of Arizona’s judiciary.
Guests:
  • Michael Ryan - retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice
Category: Law

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Last week justice Michael Ryan retired from the Arizona supreme court after a judicial career that spanned more than two decades. He was a trial judge who worked on some of the state's most high profile criminal cases, including the Phoenix Suns drug scandal, the trial of former governor Evan Mecham, and the AZSCAM legislative corruption case. Justice Ryan spent the latter part of his career as an appellate court judge. And in 2002, governor Jane hull appointed him to the Arizona supreme court where he remained on the bench until his retirement, August 6th. Joining me now to talk about his career and his thoughts on Arizona's judiciary is justice Michael Ryan. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Ryan:
Thank you.

Ted Simons:
Why are you retiring?

Michael Ryan:
Well, I thought it was time. It's nearly 25 years, and my wife is retired and she wants to spend a little more time with our family, and I wanted to have some flexibility in my schedule. I still want to do stuff with the court and judicial system, and I plan on doing that, but I just wanted to have a little bit more flexibility in my schedule.

Ted Simons:
Difficult decision?

Michael Ryan:
Very difficult. I agonized over it for the past year. And I eventually decided towards the spring that I think it was time for me to go.

Ted Simons:
Let's go back to the beginning. What got you interested in law?

Michael Ryan:
It was somewhat very serendipitous. I had thought I was going to be a teacher, but at the time, back in the early '70s, the jobs for teachers were similar to today. It was very difficult. And I had an opportunity to go to law school, and I did, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. And so law school is a natural for me since I majored in English and I liked reading and writing and so forth. So it seemed like a good fit to me.

Ted Simons:
And it worked out very well. I want to ask you about your distinguished military service, two purple hearts in Vietnam, correct?

Micheal Ryan:
Correct.

Ted Simons:
How did that -- let's talk about the military service in general. How did that shape you in later years, especially on the bench?

Michael Ryan:
Well, it shapes you in many ways. In one way it does shape you as it does give you the discipline to do the job that you are assigned to do and try to do it in the very best possible way you can and to get the best possible result in the most efficient way that you can. And it helps -- the military training and so forth also helps you to focus. People have trouble focusing sometimes on the task at hand. I think that's what the military really prepares you for, is to focus on what you have to do at that moment. And, for example, a trial judge has to handle a whole host of different things at the same time. It's almost like being a platoon commander sometimes it gets so hectic. But if you're able to keep calm and keep focused, you're able to get the job done.

Ted Simons:
And this may be a redundant question considering some of the attributes you just described, but what makes an effective justice? Is it someone who is obviously focused and disciplined and these sorts of things? But are there things that we wouldn't ordinarily think about that would make for a good justice?

Michael Ryan:
If you're talking about a justice --

Ted Simons:
Yes.

Michael Ryan:
on the Arizona supreme court, yes. I think you need to have focus and you have to have a lot of self-discipline because you're essentially working almost as a one-person law firm. You have a couple of law clerks to help you and so forth, and you can talk to other justices, but you have to prepare for each case by yourself. And you draft the opinions on your own and you have to try to keep up with the workload. That requires a lot of discipline and focus. I think another attribute of being a good justice is humility. I say that because, you know, people think of justices as being all knowing and maybe sometimes arrogant, but a good justice at any supreme court level has to have some humility because you don't know everything about every aspect of the law. Something new comes up every time. And it really helps -- you may have an opinion about something, but it helps to have the humility to listen to someone else and say, wait a minute. I was wrong. You're right. And you change your mind and change your opinion on something.

Ted Simons:
Compare and contrast that with a trial judge.

Michael Ryan:
A trial judge should have humility, but I think the best attribute a trial judge should have is patience. Because you are dealing with a lot of different people. You're dealing with court staff, jurors, litigants, attorneys who may have cases in several different courts at the same time. You have other staff that you have to deal with, the clerk's office and so forth. So you're managing a major operation being a trial judge. And so you need a lot of patience, and you've got to deal with people respectfully and with, as I say, a great deal of patience.

Ted Simons:
You managed -- I shouldn't say managed as a trial judge -- oversaw and judged some pretty high-profile cases here in Arizona. I want to kind of briefly touch on just three of them. Let's start with the Suns drug trial. What are your memories there? What are your thoughts on all that?

Michael Ryan:
Well, the presiding criminal judge comes walking in -- we had heard some rumors that there was a grand jury investigation going on. I really wasn't paying too much attention to it because I was pretty busy on other stuff. The criminal judge comes walking in and says, I've got a case for you. It turned out to be the famous drug -- Phoenix Suns drug case. It made national news obviously. And then one of the major crises that occurred in the case was the grand jury transcripts were released. And during the testimony that was heard by the grand jury, there are a number of players who are named that had been at parties where supposedly cocaine was used, but they either weren't involved or didn't use it or were never charged. So you had this national embarrassment for some of these players. I felt really bad for some of them. And the other problem I saw that I had to confront was the intense media scrutiny. Every day there was reporters outside my office waiting for motions to be filed and so forth and so on. And I had experienced some media coverage of various cases but not to that extent.

Ted Simons:
Speaking of media coverage, let's move on to another case, the Mecham trial. I'm guessing that made the Suns case look like minor league? Compare and contrast, again, what you saw, your memories of the Mecham and this governor with the indictments in there and some of the other cases. Did that seem like -- anyone who was here at the time, it just seemed like a zoo.

Michael Ryan:
It was a zoo because you had the impeachment trial in the Senate before they had the criminal trial. And that trial, which was presided over by chief justice Gordon who was the chief justice of the supreme court at the time, was televised gavel to gavel. And then when the criminal trial came up after governor Mecham had been convicted by the Senate, they had the criminal trial -- they brought forward the criminal trial on other charges that he hadn't been tried on in the Senate. And channel 8 came forward and said, we'd like to cover this gavel to gavel, which meant my children couldn't watch Sesame Street in the morning. At any rate, everyone agreed to it. So we did that. That was a very different experience because it was the first time, at least in Arizona, I think the first time in the country, that they had gavel-to-gavel coverage of a trial, criminal trial in a superior court. That was quite an experience. Part of the problem was picking a jury because so many people knew about everything that happened and so forth. So it took us a couple of weeks to pick a jury. But once we got a jury picked, things went pretty smoothly after that. And so we did okay.

Ted Simons:
Did you do okay with the AZSCAM trial?

Michael Ryan:
The AZSCAM trial, most of the defendants -- I think there were 16 or so defendants -- most of them plead guilty through the manner of the trial. That trial lasted about seven months. Most of the time the jurors and myself and the lawyers and the two defendants, the prosecutors were listening to tapes or watching videotapes of these various bribery transactions and so forth, and it went on for hours and days, day after day after day. And in the middle of that trial, the major informant or the person the County attorney's office used to be the mobster who was buying off these people to have legalized gaming here published a book, and it came out in the middle of the trial. Of course the defense attorneys were going crazy because he revealed grand jury stuff that went on in the grand jury, which is supposed to be secret and so forth and so on. So during the day I was listening to them. At night I would have to go home and read the book and then I would have to go and ask the jurors if they had heard about the book, read the book and I would have to tell them they couldn't read the book and stuff.

Ted Simons:
Wow! Crazy stuff

Michael Ryan:
It was.

Ted Simons:
We're running out of time and there are a host of things I want to ask you. I want to ask you generally the state of your thoughts on the judiciary and merits on the selection of a judge? Any concerns on that? It seems to be a topic, some people like it, some people don't. Where do you stand on that?

Michael Ryan:
I'm a firm believer in merit selection. I've gone through the process at three different levels -- the superior court, court of appeals and finally the supreme court. And frankly without merit selection, I would not have been a judge. I would not have run for election. And I think that the merit selection, it does have some faults but it's probably the best -- I think it's the best way to select judges. The major criticism is well, we can't get rid of bad judges, but we're working on that the court is constantly working to improve the information about judges performance so voters can make reasonable judgments about who to retain or not retain as judges.

Ted Simons:
Okay. So overall, with merit selection included, state of the judiciary right now in Arizona strong?

Michael Ryan:
I would say strong, as long as we get enough funding. That will be an issue.

Ted Simons:
Indeed. Justice, it's a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.

Michael Ryan:
Thank you. Thank you very much.

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