The Polks: One wedding, two careers, three sons, four (current and future) alumni

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Polk family, Sheila and Tom, seated, and, from left, sons Matt, Stephen and John.
If you were to pick a College of Law dynasty, it could be the Polk family. The Polk dynasty was born in moot court competition, and its next generation is now in class in Armstrong Hall. It supports the College of Law through donations of time and money, and its matriarch wields benevolent power through courageous and controversial pronouncements and selfless public service.

Sheila and Tom met as first-year students in 1979, married a week after graduation, and now practice in Prescott. Tom handles trusts, investments and charitable foundations at Kieckhefer Assoc., Inc., and Sheila is Yavapai County Attorney. Two of their sons, Matt and Stephen, currently are 2Ls at the College of Law.

Their first son, John, the one who got away, attended the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, where he earned his J.D. and LL.M. in tax, and now practices at Traders Accounting in Phoenix, where he assists clients with the formation of business entities and with tax issues for individuals, partnerships, corporations and trusts. (But even he can’t escape the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law entirely and is frequently tapped by his two younger brothers for help in tax-law classes.)

“The Polk family is a true success story in the Arizona legal community, and the College of Law has been privileged to have their longstanding and ongoing support," said Dean Douglas Sylvester. "We continue to enjoy a close relationship with Tom and Sheila, who have each parlayed their College of Law education into noteworthy careers. I have no doubt that their sons, Matt and Stephen, will graduate with the tools to follow in their parents’ impressive footsteps.”

It all started, really, in that moot court presentation, which had a knight-in-shining-armor twist, but you need to have some background on the two protagonists first.

Sheila grew up in Phoenix in a large family whose father was a general contractor. Her parents emphasized education, but her career path was unclear. There wasn’t any money for tuition, so she worked her way through Phoenix College, then graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in French. During her last semester, her sister suggested law school. Sheila wasn’t sure, but perused the textbooks in the bookstore, had a revelation that the cases were about “real life,” and took the Law School Admission Test. She applied only to ASU, received a scholarship for the $300 tuition (yes, that’s $300), and decided to try it for a year.

Meanwhile, Tom grew up in Prescott, developing a lifelong friendship with ASU law alum and former State Bar President Mike Murphy that started with playing basketball and survived the trauma of being asked to referee a game between the local ASU and UofA law grads. Tom then went west for college, to the University of California, San Diego, where he earned an economics degree. He came back to Arizona to pursue a joint J.D./M.B.A. at ASU, also on scholarship, thus setting the scene.

Sheila and Tom Polk
Fast forward to spring of 1979, first-year criminal procedure, and Tom and Sheila, who were just friends, were paired up as partners for the moot court assignment. They divided up the issues in the case, wrote their briefs, practiced, and, on the day of the presentation, dressed up and went downtown to argue before a three-judge panel.

“I stood up and froze,” Sheila said. “I could not make a word come out of my mouth. I can still see those judges. It was at least 60 seconds of total silence, and they were squirming.

“Then Tom got up, calmly came to the podium to stand beside me, started arguing my issues, and then argued his. I was mortified. I do recall when the three judges gave their critiques, they were very complimentary of Tom.”

Tom, like any knight in shining armor, says he has no memory of Sheila faltering.

“None at all,” he said. “I don’t remember it as being difficult. We had worked together on the issues and divided them up to write.”

The irony is that Tom, who never wanted to be a litigator, went on to a job where he never has to argue at trial, and Sheila chose a career as a prosecutor and has been involved in decades of high-profile court cases.

So, of course, they were married, and their happily-ever-after included three boys. They moved to Prescott because it was so much easier to work and be involved in the boys’ activities.

Tom’s work is highly confidential, so talk around the family dinner table usually revolved around Sheila’s cases.

“There was a lot of discussion of legal issues,” said Matt, the youngest. “I remember some of the gruesome details Mom would share about her cases, like the guy who was stomped to death in the park where we played hockey.”

He wasn’t sure if that one was meant as a cautionary tale about the park, or just as an intellectual discussion of the points of law, but he remembered.

Stephen, the middle son, recalls skating on roller blades in parades, and handing out candy and fliers when Sheila ran for county attorney.

“I knew I did NOT want to be a politician.”

After college, Stephen taught English to adults in Costa Rica, before applying to the College of Law for early admission in fall 2011. But he wasn’t sure he really wanted to be a lawyer. Still isn’t, he said. Meanwhile, Matt finished college and applied, too.

“When I heard Matt got in, I decided to go, too,” Stephen said.

There were other law school options for the boys, but Tom thinks the discussions of life at ASU may have had an impact.

“I have only good memories,” Tom said. “Professor (Jon) Rose had a unique Socratic method, Professor (Michael) Berch was always entertaining, and of course, the best memory was meeting my wife.

“Even so, I’m still surprised the boys ended up there. If they had gone to the University of Arizona, it would have been hard.”

(Rumor is the word “disown” was thrown around in that discussion.)

Tom and Sheila are strong supporters and frequent contributors to the College of Law.

“It has done so much for me,” Sheila said. “I don’t know what I would be doing today if I hadn’t gone there. I know it’s getting more and more expensive to provide the small-college environment we had with small class sizes. I love the idea of opening doors for other young people in ways that might change their lives as mine was changed.”

Tom said they wanted to give back.

“State support for education has fallen so much, tuition has gone up so much, and students are graduating with crushing debt loads,” he said. “We wanted to help improve the experience for students, to help with scholarships to reduce their tuition.”

Matt and Stephen had four of five classes together the first semester, none the second, and this fall have evidence together with Professor Robert Bartels.

“I know I get better grades when we study together,” Stephen said. “Matt’s a great study partner.”

They admit to only one bit of brotherly hijinks in law school, when Professor Myles Lynk, in Civil Procedure, called on Matt by last name, to summarize a case. Stephen, knowing Matt wasn’t prepared, answered instead. After that, Lynk used their first and last names in addressing them.

Both boys said their favorite part of law school has been playing together on the ASU roller hockey team, which echoes their father’s experience winning the intramural basketball championship.

It’s clear they are influenced by their parents’ careers.

Stephen’s legal interests lean in his father’s direction, probably business or transactional law.

“When Mom would talk about her cases, I would say, ‘No, Mom. No.’ But she’d tell me anyway. I’m still scarred,” Stephen joked. “Prosecutors are always dealing with horrible events.”

Matt is leaning toward prosecution, like his mother. He did an internship with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and will be going back this summer.

“I was inspired by how passionate she was, how she loved going to work,” he said. “From her, I developed a desire to protect the community.”

Sheila’s passion includes fighting child and elder abuse, and she said her approach to law enforcement became more proactive after prosecuting a case in which a drug user broke into the home of a 60-year-old woman in quiet Cottonwood and raped her.

“That was the moment I knew that prosecution after the fact was no longer adequate, that it could not reverse the violent rape of that woman, and that we need to partner with the community to find solutions to substance abuse.”

Sheila helped form a coalition of law enforcement and community leaders to fight alcohol, meth and other drugs in the community.

Tom, the man behind the public servant, said he is in awe of Sheila’s efforts and prosecutorial ability.

“I’m very proud of her,” he said. “I got to watch the sweat lodge trial on television, and I thought she was wonderful. I also thought, ‘Boy, I’m glad I’m not doing that.’ ”

And sometimes he feels protective.

“There are aspects of the public life that are difficult at times,” he said. “Hearing criticism of her and reading it in the paper are not fun, but that’s a sacrifice she makes. I tend to read it and filter it, and she tends to not read it.”

Some of the criticism came in 2009, after Sheila went public about her concerns over what she saw as the abuse of power by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and then-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, writing a letter to the editor of The Arizona Republic.

Thomas had asked her to take over prosecution of several cases against certain Maricopa County supervisors who were being investigated or had been charged with crimes. When she butted heads with Arpaio over the appropriate use of power and the course of the investigations, Thomas took the cases back.

In her letter to the editor, Sheila wrote, “Maricopa County is not my jurisdiction, but I can no longer sit by quietly and watch from a distance the abuses of power by Sheriff Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas. I am conservative and passionately believe in limited government, not the totalitarianism that is spreading before my eyes.” She went on to say that Arpaio and Thomas “have strayed from their constitutional duties.”

Thomas later was disbarred for his actions, and Arpaio faced a four-year FBI criminal investigation that was dropped in August without any indictments. Civil settlements have been reached with several public officials pursued by Arpaio and Thomas, and several civil cases are yet to be heard.

The public letter was a stunning move in a state where Arpaio already had been re-elected five times, enjoyed widespread support and where Arpaio and Thomas were seen as willing to attack those who challenged them.

Sheila’s stance was spurred by a training she received when a dozen Yavapai officials were invited to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2006.

“It detailed how in 1933-1942, the period of time preceding the mass killings, the purpose of policing in Germany shifted from protecting the people to enforcing Nazi ideology,” Polk said. “The training examines what happens when you start down that slippery slope of incremental change, and how we create an environment within ourselves that tolerates or participates in abuses of power.

“One of the most powerful lessons I drew was that, by your silence, you are complicit.”

So Sheila spoke out, knowing she might not be re-elected. She came up for re-election in November, and was unopposed for her third term. Arpaio also was re-elected to his sixth term.

Since that course, Polk personally participates in training every law enforcement officer and prosecutor in Yavapai County in “What You Do Matters: Lessons from the Holocaust.” She is also involved in bringing the Holocaust training to others, including at the upcoming State Bar of Arizona Convention this summer.

She recently was chosen by the State Bar of Arizona to receive its Michael C. Cudahy Criminal Justice Award, which is presented annually to “the criminal law prosecutor who during his or her career has worked tirelessly to advance the principles of criminal justice by representing the public’s interest with integrity, fairness, tenacity, creativity, brilliance and above all, professionalism.”

It was no surprise to the three boys who watched their mother wage her public battles and their father stand in quiet backup.

“He has always been her staunchest support,” Matt said.

“They are two of the most capable people I know,” Stephen said. “Any question I have, I can go to them. They know everything.”

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