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A justice for all steps down

Chief justice is credited with reforms to aid public gain access to court system



The war to reform Arizona’s costly and often bewildering justice system is losing one of its heroes.

Arizona Supreme Court Justice Thomas A. Zlaket, widely praised for his struggle to make the court system accessible to average people instead of the wealthy and powerful, will step down tomorrow.

A decade ago, Zlaket became one of two Tucsonans on the state’s highest court when he left his successful personal injury law practice to accept an appointment from then-Gov. Fife Symington.

Zlaket, who also spent 10 years as a criminal defense attorney, was promoted to chief justice in 1996 and served in that role until January.

Zlaket, 60, instituted widespread reforms to help the public gain better access to a costly court system that some middle- and low-income Arizonans perceive as biased and impossible to traverse.

“Access to justice” is one of Zlaket’s mottos, and he strived to implement that goal by introducing court centers where people who cannot afford attorneys can seek legal advice and obtain help with complicated forms.

“We have to deliver a fair justice system that treats everyone as an equal,” Zlaket said in an interview last week.

But some of his most sweeping reforms started before he became a state Supreme Court justice.

Zlaket chaired a committee that developed guidelines for civil matters in an effort to expedite the lengthy process and bring down the cost.

The so-called “Zlaket Rules,” implemented in 1991, include a change in the lawsuit “discovery” process, forcing lawyers to quickly disclose all of their facts in a case.

Before the rules, lawyers were allowed to withhold key information unless the opposing attorney requested it. Now, facts that are withheld cannot be used in trials and may result in sanctions against attorneys.

Tucson personal injury attorney Richard Grand said Zlaket’s work has changed the court system, taking the power from lawyers and giving it to citizens.

“The courthouse isn’t there for the benefit of the lawyers. It’s there for the people,” Grand said. The Zlaket Rules, he said, “have helped the little guy.”

State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Feldman said the Zlaket Rules were revolutionary in practice, although it is nearly impossible to instill complete reform.

“The stakes are so high in most cases that clients push their lawyers to do whatever it takes to win,” said Feldman, the only other state Supreme Court justice from Tucson. “Some lawyers are pushed to go too far.”

Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano, who butted heads with Zlaket on several decisions last year, said he was a fair judge whose passion for professionalism defined him.

“I think he will be remembered for really instilling . . . a sense of professionalism and what it means to act as a professional,” said Napolitano, who served on the Zlaket Rules committee.

Zlaket said he is “flattered that people think I made a difference and humanized the system a bit, because I think that’s the only way it can survive.”

Three Tucsonans are among the eight semifinalists in the running to fill Zlaket’s seat.

Attorney Michael J. Meehan and state appeals court Judges J. William Brammer Jr. and A. John Pelander will compete with five others from around Arizona for the seat.

When Zlaket hangs up his robe for the last time tomorrow, it won’t be the end of his legal career or even the beginning of a short vacation.

He plans to open a private law practice in Tucson the next day. Although he has 10 years to go before reaching the mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices, Zlaket said it was just time for him to return to private practice.

Zlaket, who is married with four grown children, attributes his work ethic to his roots.

He was raised in the Los Angeles suburbs of Gardena and Torrance to grocer parents who worked until they were in their 80s.

Zlaket first came to Tucson in the early 1960s to be close to his parents, who had moved here while he was an undergraduate at Notre Dame University.

His love for the law started in college, although Zlaket said no defining event prompted him to become a lawyer.

“There’s something about the law that fascinated me early on,” Zlaket said. “When I got to law school, it all came together for me.”

Wednesday, Zlaket will begin practicing in his new office in Williams Centre on East Broadway, specializing in appeals, arbitration and mediation. To Zlaket, settling cases out of court through negotiations is the future of the justice system.

“I’m telling everybody I’ll be open for business May 1,” Zlaket said. “I’m only 60 now and, God willing, I have a lot of years left.”

Key dates in Zlaket’s professional career

1962: Received bachelor’s degree in political science from Notre Dame.

1965: Received law degree from University of Arizona College of Law.

1981: Began practicing personal injury law with brother Eugene in private firm.

1983: Garnered a $2.58 million verdict for “Sad Sack” cartoonist Fred Rhoads against a New York company that was accused of underpaying him. The verdict was reversed on appeal.

1986: Won his largest-ever verdict – $13.3 million – as co-counsel in a Phoenix case brought by the heirs of a hotel owner against Valley National Bank.

1988-1989: President of the State Bar of Arizona.

Dec. 20, 1991: Appointed by then-Gov. Fife Symington to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Feb. 3, 1992: Sworn in as the state’s 33rd Supreme Court justice.

July 1, 1992: “Zlaket’s Rules” go into effect, offering new guidelines to expedite civil lawsuits and reduce costs to plaintiffs and taxpayers.

Dec. 5, 1996: Named chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

April 5, 1998: Seriously injured in Tour of the Tucson Mountains bicycle race; hospitalized for several days after breaking pelvis.

March 15, 2002: Zlaket announces retirement, effective tomorrow.


“We have to deliver a fair justice system that treats everyone as an equal,” outgoing Arizona Supreme Court Justice Thomas A. Zlaket says.

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