With Justice System In National Spotlight, Both Maricopa County Attorney Candidates Promise Change

By Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, October 7, 2020 - 5:24pm

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Republican Allister Adel was appointed to the role of Maricopa County attorney last year when her predecessor, Bill Montgomery, was appointed to Arizona’s Supreme Court. To stay in office, Adel will now need the support of voters. Her opponent is Democrat Julie Gunnigle, a Scottsdale lawyer.

“One of the challenges that Julie Gunnigle faces is she doesn’t have the name recognition that Allister Adel does,” said Valena Beety, deputy director of the Academy for Justice at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “But a problem that Allister Adel faces is whether she’s just continuing the legacy of Bill Montgomery.”

allister adel
Allister Adel for County Attorney
Republican Allister Adel is the incumbent Maricopa County Attorney.

This is a historic race. Either candidate would be the first woman elected to the role. And the choice comes before voters at a time when the nation’s justice system — from local police to the U.S. Supreme Court — is under scrutiny. Beety said both candidates promise change.

“Both of them are moving in directions of creating greater transparency around police accountability," Beety said. 

Adel has the endorsement of the Phoenix Police Sergeants and Lieutenants Association and said her office needs a good relationship with law enforcement in order to prosecute crimes. But she said that relationship doesn’t conflict with her responsibility to hold officers accountable in cases of misconduct.

In the recent case involving an Arizona Department of Public Safety trooper who fatally shot a 28-year-old Black man, Dion Johnson, during a traffic stop, Adel determined evidence didn’t support criminal charges against the trooper. But in her announcement, Adel emphasized that she made that decision with the input from a civilian committee. And she called on Arizona lawmakers to require body-worn cameras for law enforcement statewide to improve transparency in officer-involved cases. Trooper George Cervantes was not wearing a body camera when he shot Johnson. 

“I believe this is a matter of public concern," Adel said during her September announcement that she would not pursue criminal charges against Cervantes, “When trying to determine what happens after an event like this ending with the death of Mr. Johnson, more information is always better, better for prosecutors, better for the public.” 

Adel’s opponent says community input and body cameras aren't enough. 

“Mrs. Johnson, you and your son and your family deserve so much better," Gunnigle said, appearing alongside Johnson’s family and Black Lives Matter activists following Adel's announcement of no charges. "I want my voice to join everyone else's who is calling out today for accountability and transparency." 

A vigil for Dion Johnson, who was killed by a state trooper Monday, May 25th.
Scott Bourque/KJZZ
A vigil at Eastlake Park for Dion Johnson, who was killed by a state trooper on May 25, 2020.

Gunnigle's platform says the working relationship between law enforcement and the County Attorney’s Office does present a conflict of interest. Gunnigle says under her leadership, police misconduct cases would be assigned to an independent unit.

Another issue both candidates are promising to address is the number of Arizonans sent to prison each year.

“Arizona has a higher incarceration rate than the United States and we know that the United States leads the world on incarcerating people," Beety said. 

Drug offenses make up nearly half of cases filed with the County Attorney’s Office. Adel said, since taking office she has pushed for alternatives to incarceration for many of those defendants.

“That person doesn’t need to go to prison, they need to get treatment, and that is our approach: treatment first," Adel said in an interview. 

This year, Adel did away with a fee for defendants to participate in a felony diversion program and she began allowing those charged with marijuana possession to avoid prosecution by buying a medical marijuana card.

But on this issue, again, Gunnigle wants to go further. Her platform includes a promise to dismiss all pending low-level cannabis cases on her first day in office. And she doesn’t consider that a radical move by comparison to other states’ policies.

Julie Gunnigle
Jennifer McDowell
Julie Gunnigle is running on the Democratic ticket for Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

“I think people need to realize where we stand in the nation is an anomaly and we have a chance to change that and change it in a way that will be humane and save us money," Gunnigle said in an interview. 

These campaigns come at a time when the nation’s highest court is facing changes. President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is seen as an opponent to abortion rights.

Gunnigle, who is endorsed by Planned Parenthood, said overturning Roe v. Wade could put decisions around reproductive rights in county-level courtrooms. She said she would not prosecute individuals for healthcare matters.

“I am terrified as to what a post-Roe Arizona would look like, and what’s at stake in our Supreme Court and in our county attorney race for reproductive justice," Gunnigle said. 

Adel called that scenario far-fetched and said her job is not to legislate. 

“Your duty as a top prosecutor is to enforce the laws that are on the books whether you agree with them or not," Adel said. 

In her campaign, Adel emphasizes her experience in the role. She has the support of current and former Arizona Attorneys General Mark Brnovich and Grant Woods.

Gunnigle says her campaign is about reform. She has attracted endorsements ranging from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego to politically active R&B star John Legend.

Beety said it’s no surprise this down-ballot race is drawing attention.

“County attorneys wield a tremendous amount of power," Beety said. 

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is the nation’s third-largest prosecutorial agency. Beety said, this year especially, the choice before voters is critically important.

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