On Friday, May 24, 2024, ABC15 reported that a court ruling has reignited a scandal involving a former judge and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO).

According to the report, Maricopa County’s Presiding Judge Joseph Welty has disqualified his entire bench from hearing a post-conviction relief challenge in a first-degree murder case. This unprecedented move was prompted by the “exceptionally rare” circumstances surrounding former judge Erin Otis, who presided over the murder trial.

The ruling states that Otis, who left the bench in 2020 to become a death penalty prosecutor with MCAO, is alleged to have committed an “unprecedented number of ethical violations” during her time as a judge. Some of these allegations have been addressed by the State Bar of Arizona and the Arizona Commission of Judicial Conduct, but many were widely publicized in the media.

The report notes that Otis is “well known by the bench” in Maricopa County, and there is a potential that the judges may have formed opinions about the allegations against her that they may not be able to set aside. As a result, Judge Welty determined that the case should be reassigned to a judge from another county to ensure the integrity of the judiciary and the public’s trust.

The post-conviction relief challenge was filed by attorneys for Victor Ted Hernandez, who was convicted of murder in late 2019 while Otis was the presiding judge. During Hernandez’s trial and sentencing, as well as in many other cases, Otis and her staff were reportedly mocking and ridiculing people in court through emails and memes.

The ruling states that Otis and other court officials will likely have to testify and answer questions about the alleged misconduct, which has the potential to implicate other legal officials and institutions, including County Attorney Rachell Mitchell, the State Bar of Arizona, and the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct.

According to the report, while Otis was presiding over the Hernandez case, she was also discussing potential employment opportunities at MCAO with Mitchell and other top officials. Mitchell, who was an MCAO division chief at the time, denies any wrongdoing.

In response to Judge Welty’s order, MCAO has filed a motion asking the court to reconsider the decision to reassign the case and to vacate the order. The motion argues that the “factual assertions and accusations” included in Welty’s order “are not sufficiently supported or fail to provide a complete account of the relevant events.” MCAO has also included a rebuttal to most of the allegations.

Several attorneys quoted in the report believe that the court’s order and MCAO’s challenge will finally put greater scrutiny on the scandal, which they believe the legal system has previously tried to minimize and ignore.

Karen Clark, an attorney who has handled Arizona legal ethics cases for more than three decades, represented a pair of defense attorneys who raised concerns about Otis’s conduct as a prosecutor after leaving the bench. Clark says that the Bar complaint filed against the defense attorneys was ultimately dismissed, and the Bar did not fully investigate the corresponding evidence that she and her clients provided about Otis.

Following ABC15’s reports, the State Bar admonished Otis for the emails and memes and for her job discussions with MCAO officials. However, Clark argues that the Bar did not appear to investigate or consider action against any other officials, including Mitchell, tied to the scandal.

In a statement to ABC15, the State Bar said that it is currently considering whether there is a basis for additional review based on Judge Welty’s order.

 

 

Source: ABC15