Mohave County Superior Court Judge Steve Conn pulls the curtain on a 40 year legal career on June 30. His retirement is forced by a state law requiring him to step down at the age of 70.
Conn said he’ll spend more time with his son Joshua, a personal trainer, and his daughter Jennifer, a lawyer, and two grandchildren in Denver, but that he’s not pulling up stakes in northwest Arizona.
“I tell people I’ve been in Kingman for 40 years because I like Kingman,” Conn said. “I don’t have any desire to leave here.”
Retirement affords Conn more time to devote to personal interests such as his dogs, nostalgic movies and sports, including softball. He said he doesn’t intend to dabble in any corner of the legal profession and doesn’t feel it necessary to have a retirement roadmap.
“I’m just going to do this one step at a time. I figure for the first couple of weeks I’m going to focus on just getting up in the morning and not go to work and take it from there,” Conn said. He said he’s concerned he’s losing a sense of order and normalcy that came with the job.
“That’s the thing that really worries me the most about this. I’ve joked with people for years about what I refer to as the ‘Bear Bryant syndrome’—someone who had a job that he loved, was really wrapped up in it, retired and immediately died,” Conn said. “I saw the same thing happen with Joe Cook(late sheriff)—locally retired from law enforcement and died before he could even retire, so I hope that’s not going to happen.”
While Conn has a reputation for sharp wit, sarcasm and entertaining bench demeanor, he noted that he was actually voted the “most shy” among some 500 males at his high school. He said he’s more comfortable in court than in public, and that he’ll miss the social opportunities with attorneys and court staff.
“There’s a lot of things that I’m going to really miss. Not just working, which I like doing, but having a reason to get up in the morning, to take a shower, to get dressed and go somewhere where you have something really important to do,” Conn said. “I know that I’ve enjoyed weekends. I’ve enjoyed vacations that I’ve had, but even on vacation I’ve looked forward to getting back to work, so it’s going to be difficult.”
Conn’s path to the bench was not clear from his youth. He graduated from high school in Arlington, Ohio in 1965 before attending Ohio State for four years. He said his grades were not good enough for him to get into medical school to follow in his father’s footsteps and he earned a degree in history.
Following his first round of college, Conn was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam war. He said he fell in love with Arizona during a 2 ½ year hitch at Fort Huachuca that ended in August, 1972.
Conn spent the next year working at a Tucson area copper mine before he got into law school at the University of Arizona. He graduated with a law degree in 1976 before taking the Bar exam three times before he passed.
Conn took his first job in the legal arena in the Mohave County attorney’s office in July, 1977. He served as a prosecutor for 8 ½ years, the last four as chief deputy for the office.
Conn assumed the bench in December, 1985, and held the post for roughly 31 ½ years. Jury trials are his favorite part of the job.
“I’ll have to admit I love trying cases. I love doing jury trials. I love interaction with jurors. I just love the process,” he said.
Conn said the right to trial by peers is fundamental to the American Justice system. He said he respects the dynamics, though he doesn’t always concur with the trial verdicts and outcomes.
“I think jurors do an incredible job on cases,” Conn said. “People come in who don’t have any experience, sit through days of testimony to make a decision. Often times they don’t make a decision that I would have made but that’s the beauty of the system and that’s why it’s important to have the rights to have a trial by citizens of the community rather than having a trial by maybe some hardened, cynical judge whose going to be less likely to look at the human aspect of a case.”
Conn handled 732 felony jury trials in his career, 88 as a prosecutor and 644 more as a judge.
Crammed court calendars and insufficient time to thoroughly consider matters is Conn’s biggest concern about the job he exits.
“The thing that has always concerned me the most is just the lack of time. It is a problem,” Conn said. “In an ideal world there would be this individualized consideration of every case with time for reflection and contemplation and analysis. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Conn said he leaves the bench hoping he’s been a mentor for many.
“I’ve had people refer to Division 3 as the ‘educational division’”, Conn said. “I’ve had probably hundreds of attorneys that have appeared in front of me and have left and gone somewhere else. I’d like to think that they learned something in my court room. Maybe they learned how to be a better lawyer, how to do things better and how to better represent their clients.”
Conn said he has never allowed himself to be bothered by the ugliness and depravity of murders and other criminal cases that come before him. He said there’s no point in spending much time reflecting that he sentenced a killer who was executed and has sent hundreds of others to prison for thousands of years.
“I have tried to never lose sleep over decisions I’ve made,” Conn said. “I think as a judge or a lawyer, you just have to do the best you can on an individual case that you have and do what you think is right and move on to the next thing.”