The county is looking to close the Sonoita Court, according to Jennifer St. John, the Santa Cruz County Manager. If the County Board of Supervisors does vote to suspend operations in Sonoita, all cases currently heard in Sonoita will transferred to Nogales.
Justice Precinct 2 (JP2) Judge Keith Barth who presides over the court in Sonoita opposes the closing of the Sonoita Court. “The state of Arizona recognizes the vast differences from community to community,” he said. “Therefore, they created community Justice Courts where the presiding Judge must live. Judges who live and work in the area in which they serve have a true sense of the people who appear in front of them. The Judges know the people, their situations, the best way to help them and serve appropriate justice. If the Sonoita Court closes, all cases will go in front of Nogales judges who know nothing about the citizens of Sonoita, Elgin and Patagonia.”
The county manager, however, feels that the saving of approximately $200,000 per year, most of which represents the salaries and employee related expenditures for Judge Barth, Constable Art Hinker and two full time court employees, could be better used to help balance the county’s budget. “Due to a decline in revenue since 2007, the budget is not structurally balanced. I took a good look at all our non-mandated departments,” she said. Closing the Sonoita court would, in her opinion, “provide minimal or no impact on Santa Cruz County residents that use JP2.”
There is some concern that this move would also cause the Sonoita Library and the sheriff’s substation to close, which St. John disputes. “I’m not sure that the building would be shut down,” she said. If it does, the county would explore alternate sites in Sonoita for both the library and the sheriff’s substation, according to St. John.
Judge Barth, who was instrumental in implementing the Department of Corrections work program that has inmates maintaining the Sonoita Fairgrounds, the Elgin Club, the county complex and other locations in Sonoita and Patagonia, worries that the program would be terminated if his position were eliminated. St. John did not feel that the program would be threatened. “There would be no reason for them not to continue that relationship,” she said.
The Sonoita Courthouse has been serving Sonoita, Elgin and Patagonia for over 30 years. “Never has the Sonoita Courthouse been required to turn a profit, nor has it,” Barth said. “Courts are not meant to generate revenue. Requiring a profit from a court creates a potential to unfair increase in citations, fines, penalties and bias by the court. Nothing good can come from requiring courts to turn a profit.”
“Currently many county departments’ budgets are being increased. New positions are being created and approved. Department requests for additional employees are being approved by the county manager and the Board of Supervisors. The Sonoita Court’s budget has been approved by the Board of Supervisors and the Sonoita Court has stayed within the budget,” he added.
Barth argues that the county will have to hire an additional judge and personnel to handle the increased workload caused by closing the Sonoita court. “Employees lose their jobs here, people in Nogales are hired to fill those positions there,” he said. St. John refutes that, saying “That’s not my understanding.” The Sonoita Court hears an average of 20 cases per week, while the Nogales court (JP1) hears 193 per week. She feels that the Nogales Court can accommodate the extra cases, and, if not, a judge might be hired on a contract basis to hear cases once a week.
Barth asks that Santa Cruz County citizens opposed to the closing of the Sonoita Justice Court contact the three County Supervisors. “All three must be informed how important this issue is to members of the Sonoita, Elgin and Patagonia communities. He also urged people to voice their opposition at the County Board of Supervisors meetings, held at 9:30 a.m. on the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of each month at the Santa Cruz County Complex.