Arizona Republic
 July 19, 2007


(Phoenix, AZ)

Author: Richard Ruelas, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 6


The title of presiding judge of the Maricopa County Superior Court system means Barbara Rodriguez Mundell spends most of her time running the court system. She dons the black robe and takes the bench only once a month, and that proceeding, conducted in Spanish, is mainly for show.

"I want you to take responsibility," she told defendant Jesus Ramon Romo during a recent session of the Spanish-language DUI court. "You need to stop drinking."

Romo, hands clasped in front of him and his head slightly bowed, had already done four months in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated drunken driving. A probation officer had recently caught him drinking.

A few dozen other defendants sit on the wooden spectator benches and in the jury box, making for a rapt audience to Mundell's Spanish scolding.

"You have to decide," Mundell says, "if you want a life with ..." Here, the judge addressed the court translator in English. "How do you say 'dignity'?
Dignidad?" She turned to Romo again. "con dignidad."

The DUI court was not started by Mundell, but she has adopted it, making it a monthly priority in a datebook clogged with administrative meetings.

It can be an emotionally draining afternoon. Mundell said some of the mostly male defendants remind her of relatives. She will sometimes tell the courtroom how alcoholism has touched her own family, hoping that will help them relate to her.

"I'll mention everything I can to make them stop drinking," Mundell said, during an interview after that day's session.

The DUI court hearings are held in the Old Courthouse, which is across the street from the Superior Court complex and also houses Mundell's office. The five-story building from the late 1800s is rooted in Phoenix history. It suits Mundell.

The first woman and first Latina to lead the Superior Court system in the nation's fourth-most-populous county grew up about 5 miles south of the courthouse, in a Phoenix neighborhood across the Salt River that didn't breed high expectations. Rather, it sowed seeds of self-doubt that Mundell would battle throughout college, law school and her judicial career.

"That little girl from south Phoenix is still inside," she said. "That never goes away."

There is no room for doubt anymore. Mundell finds herself at the center of twin controversies that have played out in the courts and in the media. In both, Mundell has been accused of tipping the system to favor people of her ethnicity.

" 'She's one of them. She's only interested in giving them justice,' "
Mundell said, summarizing what she hears about herself. She quickly dismisses those notions. "I'm interested in protecting everybody's due process rights."

Into the fire

The first of the battles began in December 2005, when Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas announced he would file a federal lawsuit against the Spanish-language DUI court. He called it unconstitutional and worse than the Jim Crow segregationist laws passed after the Civil War.

Thomas' lawsuit was tossed out of district court on procedural grounds, but he filed an appeal in March.

Thomas also has claimed Mundell is subverting the will of the voters who approved a law in November denying bail to illegal immigrants charged with serious felonies.

Thomas denied a request to specifically discuss Mundell, but during a recent news conference he said the courts Mundell runs have "granted bail for strange and unusual reasons."

And during a recent interview on KTAR-FM (92.3), Thomas said "it is very clear that what is going on is an attempt to thwart the law." He didn't single out Mundell but did say that her judicial position is uniquely protected. "As they say in the movie The Godfather," Thomas said, "there's a lot of buffers."

Mundell said she believes Thomas' fights with her are mainly about politics, not about justice.

"It's so this guy can get his name in the paper and make a big name for himself," she said. "Say he's tough on crime, tough on illegal immigration and get into a higher office."

Mundell knows that she is at a disadvantage in a public debate with Thomas.
Not only because she is ethically restrained from certain comments, but because justice issues don't make for easy political points. Defending the rights of unpopular persons or groups doesn't have the same political ring as advocating for them to be locked up, she said.

"It's about what fair is," she said. "It's not about a steppingstone. When's the last time you saw a judge run for office?"

Doing the job

Mundell said she has no plans to run for political office, but at times her current position feels like one.

Mundell said she was not ignoring the will of the voters in the bail issue.
But the new law didn't spell out how the courts should determine whether a person is here illegally. The courts looked at past case law to find a proper procedure, she said.

That procedure has since changed, thanks to a law passed by the Legislature.
Mundell, speaking before that law's passage, said she wasn't so much concerned about the outcome of the cases, but ensuring that all defendants are treated equally and fairly.

"We're so used to doing this every day without fanfare. The notion that we have to defend that appalls me," she said.

As for the DUI court, Mundell said it is not discriminatory. It is based on language ability, not ethnicity. It is also voluntary.

The Spanish DUI court, which is funded by a federal grant, was started in
2002 by Colin Campbell, the presiding judge who preceded Mundell.

"We ran that DUI court under my tenure without a hint of criticism from anyone," said Campbell, now an attorney in private practice.

Campbell said he warned Mundell that the office of presiding judge would come with at least one surprise controversy.

"It's the unanticipated crisis that puts you in the public eye," Campbell said. "That's something she didn't anticipate."

A push

Mundell has not anticipated much of her life.

As a girl, Mundell grew up with defined boundaries. From her modest home on Pecan Road, she could bike up to Sunland Avenue or south to Hidalgo Avenue, but not one block farther.

There were also perceived boundaries. Her parents didn't go to school past the eighth grade. A higher education wasn't an expectation.

Mundell found inspiration for college in an unlikely source.

"I couldn't date in high school," she said. Her father turned away all suitors. "I said, 'I'll never get married. I better get a good job.' "

A counselor at South Mountain High School spotted potential in the bookish teenager and asked what she aspired to be. Mundell said she wanted to be a stewardess, too afraid to say she wanted to be a lawyer.

"Who would believe me?" she said.

That counselor helped steer Mundell to Arizona State University, where her grades earned her a scholarship. She was "painfully shy" but gained confidence as she gained knowledge.

She married just before entering law school in 1978. That marriage, which produced a daughter, would end in divorce 10 years later. She has been married to William Mundell, who sits on the Arizona Corporation Commission, for 13 years. They have two children.

After law school, Mundell entered corporate law, then handled workers'
compensation cases. She worked for the Industrial Commission, became an administrative law judge, then a Juvenile Court judge before becoming a Superior Court judge.

"I've been talked into every job I've had," she said. "It's never been my thought to go pursue that because there's always that self-doubt."

'Scared to do it'

That self-doubt crept back again when the county probation department won the grant to start an all-Spanish DUI court. Mundell was intimidated to take the bench.

"I was scared to do it," she said. "I didn't think I had the (Spanish) vocabulary."

In the first sessions, Mundell said she would repeat the same phrases over and over.

"After a while," she said, "I just started feeling comfortable with everybody."

What goes on in these appearances would normally be handled in a meeting with a probation officer, not in a courtroom open to the public.

The fact the proceedings are held in Spanish means defendants waiting their turn become an audience to a real-life courtroom drama.

"You're really learning from seeing what others are doing," she said.

Court's in session

Froylan Blancas was a skeptic about the DUI program when he was ordered to participate last July. The first session didn't make him feel much better.

"The judge said, 'I want to help you. But this is going to be really hard for you,' " he said.

Nearly a year later, Blancas left Mundell's courtroom with a graduation certificate in hand and a new life outlook.

"It makes you more aware, gives you better character," he said in the halting English he has picked up in the past year. "It lets you know yourself. When you are doing drugs or alcohol, you don't look at yourself."

Mundell begins each session by sending violators of the program to jail.
This portion is held in English, but the message of seeing someone carted off in handcuffs still comes through. Afterwards, Mundell gives certificates to those graduating. For this, she leaves the bench and walks to the center of the courtroom, prodding each graduate to make a speech.

The second graduate of a recent session was Robin Velazquez. The 31-year-old had pleaded guilty in May 2006 to driving under the influence with a child in his car.

Mundell handed him a microphone to address the courtroom.

"I learned what I was doing wrong. I began to learn what path I was on, and I turned myself around," Velazquez said. "I feel like a member of a group, and I'm ready to keep going."

He handed the microphone to Mundell, who joined the rest of the room in applause.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8473.