Having worked in Maricopa and Pinal counties before coming to Graham County, Scott Bennett has seen a lot of judges in action. Michael Peterson is different, Bennett said.
"I've never seen anyone on the bench who is so genuinely concerned with trying to help people overcome addiction," Bennett, the Graham County attorney said. "It's hard not to become jaded. You see the same things everyday and it's just remarkable to me that each Law and Motions Day he's not looking at the calendar thinking 'Oh, how many cases do we have before we can go to lunch?' He's thinking 'How many people can I help?'"
Peterson, a native of Salt Lake City, Utah, was appointed to the Graham County Superior Court bench in September 2015 after Judge R. Douglas Holt retired in the middle of his term. Holt had named Peterson a pro tem judge the year prior and he'd been a part-time magistrate since 2000. He's perhaps best known for creating Graham County’s Adult Drug Court in March 2017 and the Community Wellness and Veterans Services program in August 2019.
In both programs, defendants tend to have substance abuse issues, and his desire to help those defendants, and his energy are unflagging, Bennett said. There have been many a weekend when he'll go into the office "grudgingly" and find Peterson's vehicle already there.
"I don't know how he maintains his enthusiasm, his excitement and his dedication. But I tell you each Monday, each Tuesday, it's like he takes the bench with more excitement and enthusiasm than the week before," Bennett said.
His caring nature and his optimism seem to work, too, he said.
"He has a way of connecting more than any other judge I've seen. He's got a way of connecting with people, people I thought were beyond hope, and suddenly they're clean and it's been six months," Bennett said.
Chief Deputy County Attorney Scott Adams agreed.
"A judge doesn't, by job description, have to take an interest in the well-being of a defendant before them," Adams said. "They could just process their case and sentence people and never give it a second thought, but what I've noticed is that in the category of those who really want to improve their lives, he's willing to give them a chance to help themselves."
Community Wellness program participant Jay Knight said he wasn't too keen on joining up, until he sat down with Peterson.
“Judge Peterson came and met me as a human being. He didn’t come and meet me as a judge. He came in and met me as a human being,” Knight said. “This man showed me compassion. I saw humility in this man. I didn’t see a judge. I didn’t see somebody who wanted to condemn me for me being me. I saw somebody who was upholding the law because that was his job.”
Former probation officer Corey Hoisington said the mere fact Peterson meets with Wellness program participants in the jury room without wearing his robes says a lot.
"He was always down to earth with them," Hoisington said. "Judge Peterson has made a huge difference in many of these folks' lives and the simple fact is that he cares and is caring. I don't think people realize how much that can change somebody's life."
Kathy Grimes, Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition director, used the word "awesome" to describe Peterson.
"He wants to help people succeed. He doesn't want to just punish people. He wants them to be successful. He wants to give them a chance," Grimes said. "You know, maybe they made a bad choice, but he wants to give them a chance to make things better. So he thinks outside the box on how that can happen. He's willing to give people chances."
Grimes also talked about Peterson's devotion and humbleness. She remembers he still put in tons of hours while battling cancer. She also remembers him picking up a broom to help clean up following a community event.
"He does whatever he needs to do to contribute," she said.
Peterson, a married father of five daughters, said he finds his job incredibly rewarding. He found out early on in his law career he enjoys helping people find their way, whether it's a couple going through a divorce and figuring out how to divide their assets and parenting time, or attorneys and clients negotiating a plea agreement or civil settlement.
Helping the defendants in the Wellness Program and Drug Court is quite challenging, but incredibly fulfilling, he said.
"Helping them understand tomorrow can be better than yesterday and instilling hope and opportunity is one of the most important things that I think we can do," Peterson said. "In the final analysis, if we think tomorrow can be better than today than we're going to do an awful lot today to make tomorrow better. If we have no hope of that or no opportunity to do that, what are the odds we're going to make a positive change?"
"It can be a challenge to instill hope. We deal with a lot of broken people who are not at their best. How do you help someone while at the same time doing your best to try to make sure they are held accountable?" Peterson continued. "Accountability is the bedrock principal upon which change is founded. I don't believe you can have a system of justice that doesn't require accountability. The question sometimes is 'How do we get someone held accountable, but still give them that opportunity to improve their life for the better?' That can be a real challenge."