Educate and assist

Ten or so judicial conduct commissions summarize private actions in their annual reports, in addition to reporting statistics and describing public cases.  The California on Judicial Performance is one of those commissions, and it has released its annual report for 2014.  Like all commissions every year, it dismissed most complaints (1,131 out of 1,174) because they “alleged legal error not involving misconduct or expressed dissatisfaction with a judge’s decision” or an “investigation showed that the allegations were unfounded or unprovable, or the judge gave an adequate explanation of the situation.”  Two judges resigned or retired during investigations.  The Commission publicly admonished 3 judges and publicly censured 2 judges.

In addition, the Commission privately admonished 9 judges and sent advisory letters to 29.  Although the summaries of those 38 actions omit the judge’s name and other details, the Commission includes them in the annual report “to educate judges and the public, and to assist judges in avoiding inappropriate conduct.”  (Summaries of private discipline from prior years are available on the Commission’s web-site.)  The summaries of the 9 private admonishments for 2014 are:

  1. In pretrial and jury trial proceedings in a criminal case involving a pro per defendant, the judge made comments disparaging the defendant and the defendant’s defense, made a statement reflecting bias against pro per defendants, and sometimes appeared to assume a prosecutorial role in questioning the defendant. In another criminal case, the judge engaged in a pattern of discourteous treatment toward defense counsel, and asked a witness a question that created the appearance that the judge was not impartial and was biased against the defendant.
  2. After a prospective juror failed to return to court during jury selection, the judge held the juror in contempt without giving the juror an opportunity to explain or apologize. There were aggravating factors.
  3. A judge made a gratuitous disparaging remark about a defendant in a criminal matter. There were aggravating factors.
  4. In numerous cases, mostly involving pro per litigants, the judge injected the judge’s personal views or made remarks that were discourteous or created the appearance that the judge was acting as an advocate or lacked impartiality. There were mitigating factors, including corrective measures taken by the judge to change the judge’s behavior.
  5. A judge threatened to report an attorney to the State Bar without a valid basis. In another case, the judge failed to disclose information relevant to the issue of disqualification.  The judge also left court early on multiple occasions to play sports.
  6. A judge issued a restraining order in a confidential matter without jurisdiction over the restrained individual and without affording due process. The judge later engaged in an improper discussion of the matter with a non-party.  In another case, the judge made a comment that conveyed the impression that a defendant’s employer was in a position to influence the judge.  In other proceedings, the judge made discourteous remarks to litigants or to counsel.
  7. Without jurisdiction, a judge required an attorney to appear in the judge’s courtroom for an unauthorized proceeding, at which the judge failed to advise the attorney of the nature of the proceeding or of the attorney’s rights.
  8. A judge issued what was tantamount to a restraining order against an individual over whom the judge lacked jurisdiction, without providing the individual notice or an opportunity to be heard. At a later hearing at which the order was rescinded, the judge made a statement that created the appearance that the judge was requiring a party to accept responsibility for the restrained individual’s future conduct in exchange for rescinding the restraining order.  The judge also made a remark at the hearing reflecting gender bias.
  9. A judge’s handling of an administrative matter gave rise to an appearance of partiality.

The Commission explains that, “private admonishments are designed in part to correct problems at an early stage in the hope that the misconduct will not be repeated or escalate, thus serving the commission’s larger purpose of maintaining the integrity of the California judiciary.  The commission may consider private discipline in subsequent proceedings, particularly when the judge has repeated the conduct for which the judge was previously disciplined.”  The annual report also includes summaries of the 29 advisory letters, which are issued when the impropriety “is isolated or relatively minor,” “the judge has demonstrated an understanding of the problem and has taken steps to improve,” “there is an appearance of impropriety,” or “there is actionable misconduct offset by substantial mitigation.”

The other state commissions that summarize private dispositions in their annual reports are the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Kansas Commission on Judicial Qualifications, the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards, the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, and the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission.

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