Capital Punishment Ethics Dunce: Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins

Bad decision, bad opinion, bad judge.

As regular readers here know, I strongly favor capital punishment, but only when there is no doubt whatsoever about the facts and the guilt of the convicted defendant, when the crime is so cruel, horrific and premeditated that normal murders seem tame in comparison, and when the procedural due process is followed to the letter.

The Arizona Supreme Court approved the execution of Clarence Wayne Dixon, a 66-year-old prisoner convicted of first-degree murder. Dixon was serving seven life sentences for the 1985 kidnapping, rape and assault of a Northern Arizona University student when investigators connected him to another murder  seven years earlier. In 2001, DNA evidence, which had not been available at the time of his first conviction,  linked Dixon to the January 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University. She was found strangled and stabbed to death in her apartment. A jury sentenced Dixon to death in 2008. They are only getting around to it executing him now. Actually, Arizona is faster than some states.

Dixon’s attorneys argued last week that the Arizona Board of Clemency, which will meet  this week to decide whether to stay the execution, is illegal because it contains too many members who had careers in law enforcement. Arizona law states that “No more than two members from the same professional discipline” can serve on the clemency board at the same time. The board in question consists of one former Superior Court commissioner and assistant attorney general; a former federal law enforcement agent with over 30 years’ experience; a retired police officer with 30 years of service,  and a 20-plus-year detective, like the other cop a veteran of with the Phoenix police department. The fifth seat on the board is currently vacant.

 Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins ruled against Dixon, holding that the current composition of the Board complies with the law.

Not to be profane or anything, but how the hell did he come to that conclusion?

I think he just wanted to execute Dixon, and was willing to twist language and common sense into a metaphorical pretzel to do it.

“Historically, law enforcement has not been thought of as a “profession,” Hopkins said in his decision. “It is not regulated as other professions are, and has little of the characteristics of what is typically considered a profession.”

Utter nonsense. Originally, “profession” meant a calling in which someone gave up their personal ambitions to serve society. That still is a valid, if rarefied definition of the word: the key characteristic of professions is that they require the public’s trust. The first profession was the clergy, followed by doctors and lawyers. Do law enforcement officials fit that original definition–sacrificing for the public good, one who must be trusted? Yes. 

Furthermore, what constitutes “regulations” for occupations and professions are  wildly variable. Hair dressers are more regulated than judges. Lawyers and doctors are self-regulated; teachers have no formal or consistent conduct codes, and they aren’t enforced. I checked nine definitions of “profession” that were remarkable in their variations: one consistent criteria, however was that a profession requires special training—you know, like law enforcement. Judges, in contrast, have no special training requirements.

Verdict: the judge was just making stuff up. Or he’s an idiot. Or both.

Furthermore, his opinion was obviously and stubbornly contrary to the clear purpose of the law. The idea is to have different perspectives on the Board, which is most likely to arise from being in different professional cultures. The ban on more than two members from the same “professional discipline’ is supposed to maximize the chances of the Board members approaching their jobs differently. Do a former federal law enforcement agent and two former cops come from the same law enforcement professional culture and discipline?

Of course they do. As a special added unethical feature, the fact that the six member Board has a vacancy means that the three amigos have a majority on a five member panel.

The judge’s decision is unethical and indefensible.

Also unprofessional.


5 thoughts on “Capital Punishment Ethics Dunce: Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins

  1. That would be Steve Hopkins, aka “Hoppie.” The big Phoenix law firm I started at (35 lawyers in 1981, now, over 450) was commandeered and run (and essentially owned) by a University of Iowa law school grad and purportedly expert litigator. Most firms are dominated by litigators as they tend to be barracudas. There were always plenty of Iowa grads in the firm who were favored sons and daughters. The guy running the firm also dominated the state and local bar associations. He stuffed the county courts with former litigation associates, some of whom would go on to become appellate and even supreme court judges. Good for business. Hoppie was in the associate class a few years behind mine. Hoppie’s a Hawkeye.

    • As a litigator I have to agree. And the civil rights plaintiff attorneys are the worst of the lot. However, they also have the greatest tendency to overreach.

      • I’m pretty sure there will be an expedited appeal right to the Arizona Supreme Court. They’ve already been involved in this case, as they are all death sentence cases.

        I doubt Steve did much more than adopt the prosecution’s argument. I’m not sure Superior Court judges even have clerks. He’s a commercial litigator by training.

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