Justice Michael Ryan

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Retired Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan passed away this week at the age of 66. During his career as a trial judge, he presided over some of the most high profile cases in Arizona history. In this 2010 interview, one of his last interviews on “Horizon”, Justice Ryan talks about his career.

Ted Simons: Retired Supreme Court Justice Mike Ryan passed away this week at the age of 66. As a trial judge he presided over some of the biggest cases in state history. The political corruption sting known as AZSCAM, the criminal trial of Governor Evan Meacham, and the drug case. Ryan was a marine whose combat injuries in Vietnam left him confined to a wheelchair. In one of his last interviews on "Horizon" he talked about how his military service helped him as a judge.

Hon Michael Ryan: People have trouble focusing sometimes on the task at hand. I think that's what the military really prepares you for as to focus on what you have do at that moment. 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 in these things, but are there things we wouldn't ordinarily think about that would make for a good justice?

Hon Michael Ryan: If you're talking about a justice on the Arizona Supreme Court, yes. I think you need to have focus. And you have to have a lot of self-discipline. You're essentially working almost as a one-person law firm. You have a couple of law clerks to help you. So forth. You can talk to the other justices, but you have to prepare for each case by yourself. You draft the opinions on your own and you have to try to keep up with workload. That requires a lot of discipline and focus. I think another attribute of being a good justice is humility. I say that because 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 to -- 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 were right, change your mind. Change your opinion on something.

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

Hon 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. You're managing a major operation being a trial judge. 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 as a trial judge, oversaw and judged some pretty high profile cases here in Arizona. I want to briefly touch on just three of them. Let's start with the Suns drug trial in the 1980s. What are your thoughts on all that?

Hon Michael Ryan: Well, the presiding criminal judge comes walking in -- we heard some rumors 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. Presiding judge, criminal judge comes walking in, says, I've got a case for you. It turned out to be the Phoenix Suns drug case. It made national news, obviously, and then one of the major crisis that occurred was the grand jury trips were released. 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. I had experienced some media coverage of various cases but not to that extent.

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

Hon Michael Ryan: It was a zoo because you had the impeachment trial before they had the criminal trial. 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. Then when the criminal trial came up after Governor Meacham had been convicted by the Senate they had the criminal trial on -- they brought forward the criminal trial on other charges that he had not been tried on in the Senate. Channel 8 said we would 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 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, so it took us a couple weeks to pick a jury. Once we got a jury picked things went pretty smoothly after that. So we did okay.

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

Hon Michael Ryan: The AZSCAM trial -- most of the defendants I think there were 16 or so defendants, most of them pled guilty. Two demanded a trial. That trial lasted about seven months, and 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. It went on for hours and days, day after day after day. Then in the middle of that trial, the major informant or the person that the County Attorney's office used to be the mobster who was buying off these people to have legalized gaming here, published a book. 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 him and at night I would have to go home and read the book, then I would have to ask the jurors if they had heard about the book, read the book, I had to tell them they couldn't read the book.

Ted Simons: Crazy stuff.

Hon Michael Ryan: It was really crazy.

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