PHOENIX – In a small hearing room in the State Courts Building, a few individuals in black shirts sat in the three rows of chairs in the back. For the six hearings in April Sponsel’s disciplinary trial, these court watchers withattended with notepads and pens, observing and taking notes.
Sponsel, a former prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, is facing a two-year suspension of her law license for her involvement in charging Black Lives Matter protesters as gang members in 2020,. Mass Lib has been following the case since the protesters were charged, and Matt Aguilar, a lead organizer for the group, said it’s important for members to follow it to the end.
“It’s important that we’re able to bear witness so we can also maintain the narrative that there is an issue with the (Maricopa County Attorney’s) Office, a systematic issue with the office,” Aguilar said.
Mass Lib is dedicated to the end of mass incarceration and the liberation of marginalized communities. The group’s work focuses on prosecutorial misconduct, police brutality and alternatives to incarceration.
One way Mass Lib brings awareness to these issues is through court watching, a practice where volunteers observe hearings in order to support defendants, hold judges and attorneys accountable and educate the public on what’s happening in courtrooms, according to Aguilar.
“These things happen behind closed doors, and there’s a whole different language that is spoken in those rooms,” Aguilar said. “So having folks, especially folks that have been impacted by those systems, be able to be in those rooms brings that education out to the people.”
W. Jesse Weins, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said court watching is an old practice that has been around since before the United States criminal justice system existed. He said most lawyers have experienced court watchers at hearings and will welcome them – but privately have concerns about the practice.
“On a more personal level, none of us like people whose purpose to be there is to look over your shoulder about things and try to catch you and see if you’re doing things wrong,” Weins said. “Nobody would want that in their career, so privately, attorneys might say it’s a bit of a nuisance.”
However, Weins said that most attorneys accept the practice as an important part of American civil society. Aguilar said that Mass Lib often court-watches to provide support to defendants, not just to put judges and attorneys on guard.
“When folks are facing these systems, they’re often by themselves and they’re often left without any clue of what to do,” Aguilar said.
Ruia Gautam, the communications director for Mass Lib and a frequent court watcher, said one of the reasons she enjoys court watching is being able to offer solidarity to defendants who don’t have anyone in their corner. She said during her first court-watching experience, she could tell the defendant was grateful for the presence of court watchers.
“I didn’t know this person at all, to be honest, but the eye contact he would make when he turned around and saw all of us packed in there, I just know how much it meant,” Gautam said.
Gautam attended some of the Sponsel hearings in person and virtually and said it was important to see some of the key players of the case against the Black Lives Matter protesters in the flesh.
“We’re very removed from people like prosecutors and cops when they do this stuff,” Gautam said. “This was my first time seeing April Sponsel in person, ever. It’s very hard to see them in person. So it was important to face her and hold her accountable that way.”
Sponsel’s attorney declined to comment on the court watchers or the trial.
In addition to hearings like Sponsel’s, Aguilar said the group attends criminal court, eviction court, and death penalty and clemency board hearings. His goal is to create a voter guide for judges on the ballot in 2024 to help voters decide whether to retain them.
In Arizona, judges on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are appointed by the governor, but must go through retention elections every six years to determine if they stay on the bench. In larger counties, superior court judges face a similar process.
“You’ll have all these judges that are up for retention that you often know nothing about,” Aguilar said. “You literally just have to say yes or no.”
In the meantime, Aguilar and Gautam encourage anyone who might be interested in court watching to reach out to Mass Lib and get involved. The group hosts training to help volunteers know what to look out for and how to stand in solidarity with defendants.
“It’s one of the easiest ways that we can disrupt the dehumanization of people who are facing the so-called criminal justice system,” Gautam said.