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A fast-growing Arizona county with a substantial backlog of capital cases wants to establish a new judicial division, raising some concern that it may be dedicated to death penalty cases. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors recently passed a resolution asking Governor Janet Napolitano to create a new judgeship. The board’s initial press release referred to a spike in death penalty cases, partly attributing it to the county attorney’s “filing policy,” the attorney’s spokesman said. However, the board now insists that the capital backlog is not a factor. Phoenix, the largest city in Maricopa County, is the nation’s fifth-largest city, with 1.5 million residents, according to the U.S. Census. The Phoenix metropolitan area grew by more than 24% from 2000 to 2006. 135 cases await Maricopa County has a backlog of about 135 death penalty cases, said Marcus Reinkensmeyer, administrator of the Maricopa County Superior Court. The county gets about 35 new death penalty cases each year and some have been pending for more than six years, according to court data. “We’re hoping by having a full-time judge dedicated to these cases � there would be heightened focus on these matters and also better momentum,” Reinkensmeyer said. Fulton Brock, who chairs the county’s Board of Supervisors, could not be reached for comment. Lisa Keegan, the board’s communications director, stressed that the supervisors want a new judgeship to help address the county’s growth. A new judge is permitted for every 30,000 additional residents, she said. The governor’s spokesman did not return a call for comment. Barnett Lotstein, a spokesman for Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, said if a division is dedicated to capital cases, Thomas would support it because he welcomes efforts to reduce backlogs. But Larry Hammond, a criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix’ Osborn Maledon, said judges should share responsibility for handling capital cases. “For any judge to be taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws and not to have to confront the most difficult aspect of the criminal justice system strikes me as just wrong,” Hammond said.

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