Prescott attorney John Sears honored for service
PRESCOTT – John Sears had no idea the Arizona Bar Association had given him the prestigious Tom Karas Award until a colleague casually mentioned it.
“I didn’t say anything because it didn’t really sink in until we parted company,” Sears said. “Then I found out pretty quickly that a number of old friends of mine were past recipients and they had apparently nominated me together, which was particularly gratifying.”
The Tom Karas Criminal Justice Award “recognizes a criminal defense practitioner who has worked tirelessly to advance the principles of criminal justice by representing clients or the public with integrity, fairness, tenacity, creativity, brilliance and,
above all, professionalism,” according to the Arizona Bar Association.
It’s named for the late attorney, who represented indigent defendants in federal cases in the 1960s – he was the first federal public defender in the United States – and went into private practice in 1976.
Sears, 66, who knew Karas, said, “He was a little fellow, he was the size of your average thoroughbred jockey, but he cast a very big shadow.”
Sears, a native of Washington, D.C., graduated from the University of Maryland in 1972. He attended law school at George Washington University, graduating with honors in 1975.
He relocated to Prescott with his wife, Judy, in 1978, and a few years later, he went into private practice with William Kiger, who went on to become a Superior Court judge.
Having been awarded the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice’s John J. Flynn Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, becoming the first recipient from outside Phoenix or Tucson to be given the honor, and now this accolade, Sears looked back at a life as a lawyer somewhat wistfully.
“I look at my career, and there are certain things I’m pretty sure I’m never going to do again. But I think I can still help people. Age and time and everything sort of change your energy level and what you can do. But I enjoy teaching, and I might do some more of that.
“I’m still doing some death penalty cases, but no more trials, they’re death penalty appeals, which is a new experience for me.”
He’s been working with some younger lawyers of late, and “it’s just challenging and fun to be around young people who are energetic and smart.”
The biggest change he finds in today’s legal system versus the days went he went into practice 41 years ago is the proliferation of prison-mandatory offenses, which in turn, has led to many more plea agreements instead of trials.
“It changes everything. It changes your ability to consider going to trial. If your client is looking at mandatory prison, if things go badly, that really impacts on whether they’re willing to risk a jury trial,” he said. “So the number of jury trials seems to be going down.”
There was a time, years ago, when things were different, Sears said, and his speeches to younger attorneys dealt with trial tactics, but “most of those of the last few years, what I’ve tried to do is plea bargaining, because that’s what we do (now).”
And technology has changed the game, for better or worse.
Sears is an old-school, yellow legal pad kind of guy.
While he’s embraced technology, he’s still a little wary of the instant and anonymous nature of the internet.
“If you’re going to do this kind of work … and takes cases that are in the public eye, you’d better have a pretty thick skin.”