By Linda Kor–
Navajo County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Holliday has announced that she will be retiring from the bench, effective Dec. 31. Holliday was elected to her position in the courts in 2008 and is currently the presiding judge over the criminal bench.
Her decision to retire early was based on her desire to join her husband Trevor Holliday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he is teaching English to the children in that region.
Although eager and excited to take part in this new life experience, Holliday has a love for the people of this community that makes leaving difficult. “Some people become lawyers and judges because they love the law, for me it was because I love people and finding ways to help them improve their lives,” she explained.
Holliday began practicing law in 1984 after graduating from the University of Arizona College of Law in 1983, but a career in law wasn’t the path she originally intended to take.
“I told my dad that I wanted to be a minister, I think it was around 1975. He told me at the time that it would be very hard for a woman because there were very few at the time who were ministers. Since I was skilled in writing and speaking, and wanted to help people, he asked me to consider going into law.”
Growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., she graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in psychology and French before going on to earn her law degree in Arizona. She began her career in Tucson, handling worker’s compensation cases at the age of 28.
“I’d have old men come into my office and wonder if I was old enough to practice law. I looked young for my age,” she recalled. From there she worked as a lawyer for child support enforcement in Florence and Pinal County before being hired at Navajo County as a deputy county attorney.
In 1996 she became the first woman elected as a Navajo County Superior Court judge. Then in 1999 she was also the first woman to be appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as a presiding judge in Arizona.
“It was the best seat in the courtroom. I sat in all the other seats and this one gave me the best perspective. That was where I could make the most difference,” she stated.
She ran for a second term against Dale Nielson and lost, then went on to become a criminal defense lawyer for the next eight years. In 2008 she made the decision to run again and won.
Although Holliday believes every case was important and many of them tragic, those cases involving sex offenders were the most difficult to address. In recalling her most memorable cases she referred to the Lopez Newhall case in 1998. She sentenced him to 250 years in the Arizona Department of Corrections for multiple counts of sexual assault.
“In making decisions such as that I’m aided by an excellent probation department and pre-sentence writers, but those are very difficult cases. I have to say that it is a great value when victims come to sentencing and speak. It’s important for the defendants to hear the damage they’ve done. Maybe they won’t feel it today, but at some point they will,” said the judge.
When asked if she considered herself a tough judge, she smiled and shook her head. “You have to take each case individually and we have guidelines. You have to balance the choice of prison or rehabilitation against risk to the community. I do believe that as long as there is breath, there is hope,” she answered.
Holliday was quick to point out that the support and efficiency of the court administration were primary factors in making certain that case flow and accountability are in order.
“It’s a heavy caseload that goes through here. While many departments and government entities have expanded, we still have one judge with one court reporter and one judicial assistant for three times the caseload. It’s the effort of all judges to promote swift justice and this court administration allows us to do that,” adding that in 2009 and 2010, the clearance rate of cases received to those closed was 27 percent. In 2011, the rate increased to 43 percent.
It was apparent that one of the more rewarding aspects of her career has been her involvement in the drug court.
“I get to personally see every week people recovering as part of a team effort,” stated Holliday. She lauded all of the individuals in their departments who are so vigilant in assisting those who are working to change their lives. “These individuals are drug tested three times a week, they are checked on by their probation officer and surveillance officer,” noted Holliday, adding that there are approximately 20 people going through the drug court at any given time, and that the recent expansion of the court into Holbrook and Winslow will provide the opportunity to help others make changes in their lives.
As the Hollidays prepare for their new adventure they have the blessing of their two sons, John, who is an English teacher at Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside, and Sam, who will be graduating from the University of Arizona soon and be commissioned in the U.S. Army in the spring. “My sons are excited for us and our home will remain in the White Mountains when we return in two years,” she said.
Although it is difficult to leave, Holliday is grateful to be able to leave on her own terms and to feel good about her decision. She hopes to continue her studies in the French language, become involved in chorus, then see what new avenues present themselves when she arrives in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s been a wonderful experience to work here. I will miss my colleagues, but I feel good about this and I’m excited about this new adventure.”
Photo by Linda Kor
Navajo County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Holliday received letters from Governor Jan Brewer, as well as Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch of the Arizona Supreme Court, thanking her for her service and dedication to the state as she announced her retirement on Sept. 13.