Not just a slap on the wrist

Before oral arguments on June 3, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga called Judge Jessica Recksiedler to the podium and, on behalf of the Court, publicly reprimanded her for giving incomplete and inaccurate answers in interviews with a judicial nominating commission.  The reprimand was in accordance with a previous order approving a stipulation, findings of fact, and recommended discipline.  Inquiry Concerning Recksiedler, 161 So. 3d 398 (Florida 2015).

The Chief Justice began by remarking to the judge about “how sad a day this is for you, for us, and for the entire judicial system.”  Noting that the reprimand “is being broadcast throughout the state,” he explained, “it is one way we can assure the public that we take ethical misconduct by a judge very seriously and that we will not hesitate to punish errant judges in a most public way.”  He then described the judge’s misconduct and the conclusions of the Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Court.  Encouraging the judge to review the Court’s prior judicial discipline decisions, the Chief Justice noted that a number involved a single violation with no subsequent misconduct and expressed the Court’s hope that “this will also be the case with you.”  He concluded by emphasizing that the Court’s decisions indicate that “a second ethical breach will be viewed much more harshly.”

The reprimand lasted for over 5 minutes and can be viewed here.  (Since 1997, the Court’s oral argument proceedings have been televised, recorded, and archived by WFSU-TV.)

The Florida Court’s practice of ordering judges to appear before it for a reprimand has been in place since at least 2000.  In Inquiry Concerning Frank, 753 So. 2d 1228 (Florida 2000), the Court explained that it had “come to conclude that when the conduct of a jurist is so egregious as to require a public reprimand, such reprimand should be issued in person with the defaulting jurist appearing before this Court.”

The practice is not widespread in judicial discipline proceedings, but Florida is not unique.  For example, last July, Chief Justice Mike McGrath called Judge Todd Baugh to the rostrum in the Montana Supreme Court courtroom and delivered the Court’s public censure, in accordance with its previous opinion, for his comments in sentencing a teacher for sexual intercourse without consent with a 14-year-old student, imposing an unlawful sentence, attempting to retract his sentence, and making inappropriate public statements attempting to justify his actions.  He was also suspended for 31 days without pay.  Inquiry Concerning Baugh, 334 P.3d 352 (Montana 2014).  A video of the reprimand proceedings was published by the Billings Gazette here.

In some states, an in-person public reprimand is administered locally.  For example, the Chief Judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit recently administered a public reprimand to County Probate Judge Pamela Wooley in open court at the Habersham County Courthouse.  Pursuant to the judge’s agreement, the reprimand and a 4-month suspension without pay had been ordered by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission for failing to complete a mandatory mentoring program but certifying that she had.  The Commission’s rules define a public reprimand as “a public communication administered by a judicial officer which declares a judge’s conduct unacceptable under one of the grounds for judicial discipline but not so serious as to warrant a censure” (emphasis added).

The Mississippi Supreme Court’s judicial discipline decisions also reflect a policy requiring the in-person administration of a public reprimand.  For example, when it ordered Judge Neil Harris reprimanded and fined him $2,500 for abusing his contempt powers, based on an agreed statement of facts and joint recommendation, the Court ordered that “the public reprimand shall be read in open court by the presiding judge of the Jackson County Circuit Court on the first day of the next term of that court in which a jury is present after the issuance of this court’s mandate, with Judge Harris in attendance.”  Commission on Judicial Performance v. Harris, 131 So. 3d 1137 (Mississippi 2013).

Rule 6e of the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct provides that a “judge shall personally appear before the commission to receive an order imposing a reprimand or a censure.”

All states (except Oklahoma) have a sanction option such as reprimand, admonition, or censure (or sometimes a combination), although in most states the reproof is administered in writing, published on a web-site or in an official report.  A recently up-dated list of judicial discipline sanctions available in the states is now on the Center for Judicial Ethics web-site here.  “Determining the Appropriate Sanction” will be one of the topics at the 24th National College on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, October 28-30, 2015 in Chicago.  Examining recent judicial discipline cases, the session will review the criteria for imposing sanctions and discuss issues such as the relevance of a judge’s failure to express remorse and when removal is appropriate.  Participants will “vote” on what sanctions they would have imposed in actual judicial discipline cases.  Registration is now available.

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