The Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct has released its annual report. The report includes statistics on complaint disposition, and, like all commissions, the Massachusetts commission does not pursue a majority of complaints. In 2014, for example, the Commission only docketed 56 of the 343 complaints it received. (Only complaints that “allege specific facts which, if true, would constitute judicial misconduct or disability” are docketed.)
The Commission took action on 68 complaints (some filed in 2013), dismissing 11 after preliminary review, 43 after investigation, and 7 with expressions of concern and informally resolving 7. The report includes examples that help explain to the public why so many complaints against judges are dismissed every year and also demonstrate how much work the Commission does even on the complaints it dismisses to ensure that meritorious complaints will be discovered and pursued when warranted.
The report summarizes 2 complaints dismissed without investigation after preliminary review.
- The Commission voted there was no good cause to investigate a stale complaint about hearings that occurred approximately 11 years before the plaintiff filed the complaint. A represented plaintiff in a civil matter alleged that a judge had intentionally failed to follow the law, violated his constitutional rights, and improperly failed to recuse himself. The Commission’s preliminary inquiry, which “consisted of reviewing the materials submitted by the plaintiff and asking the plaintiff for any additional evidence to support his allegations,” “yielded no evidence to support this complaint.”
- The Commission dismissed as frivolous or unfounded a complaint by a self-represented plaintiff in a civil matter that alleged a judge was biased against him because he represented himself while the defendant had counsel and that the judge failed to grant him a full opportunity to be heard. The Commission reviewed the materials submitted by the plaintiff, asked the plaintiff for any additional evidence, and reviewed the docket sheet, but “the plaintiff was unable to provide any evidence, other than decisions within the legal discretion of the judge, to support his allegations.”
The report provides 3 examples of complaints dismissed after investigation.
- A represented defendant in a criminal matter alleged that a judge threatened to send him to jail if he did not plead guilty. The investigation, which included reviewing the materials submitted by the defendant, asking the defendant for any additional evidence to support his allegations, listening to the audio record of the plea hearing, and reviewing court documents from the criminal matter, “revealed that the judge conducted a normal plea colloquy and did not coerce the defendant into pleading guilty.”
- A self-represented criminal defendant alleged that a judge treated him discourteously, created an appearance of bias against him, and failed to grant him a full opportunity to be heard. The investigation, which included listening to the audio records, reviewing materials submitted by the complainant, reviewing the docket sheets, and communicating with the judge, “revealed that the judge’s treatment of the defendant was professional and appropriate, that the judge exhibited no bias, and that the defendant was given a full opportunity to be heard.”
- A self-represented defendant in a housing matter alleged that a judge failed to grant him a full opportunity to be heard. The investigation, which included reviewing the materials submitted by the defendant, asking the defendant for any additional evidence, listening to the audio record of the hearing, and reviewing court documents, “revealed that the judge had given the defendant a full opportunity to be heard.”
The report summarizes 2 complaints the Commission dismissed with expressions of concern.
- A represented defendant in a civil matter alleged that a judge treated him and his counsel discourteously and displayed bias against them. The investigation, which included reviewing the audio records of 8 hearings, reviewing the docket sheets, and interviewing the defendant and the judge, “revealed that the judge did raise his voice and address the defendant’s counsel with an irritated, impatient tone” but “did not reveal any evidence that the judge acted in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to believe he was biased.” The Commission dismissed the “complaint while expressing its concern to the judge regarding the manner in which he addresses parties appearing before him.”
- The Commission initiated a complaint alleging that a judge created an appearance of bias by questioning a party aggressively during a several day long civil trial in which all parties were represented by counsel. The investigation included reviewing the audio recordings of the entire trial, interviewing a witness, and interviewing the judge. The Commission dismissed the complaint “while expressing its concern to the judge that, in the future, he consider whether the manner in which he chooses to question a witness could lead a reasonable person to believe that he has made a prejudgment or is biased.”
The report summarizes 2 informal adjustments/agreed dispositions.
- The investigation of 3 complaints against a judge established that the judge had engaged in a pattern of treating parties appearing before him discourteously. The judge agreed to retire.
- The investigation of 2 complaints relating to 2 separate criminal matters established that the judge had, in 1 of the matters, treated the defendant discourteously and had failed to be faithful to the law and, in the other matter, had failed to grant 1 of the parties a full opportunity to be heard and failed to be faithful to the law. Pursuant to an agreed disposition, the Commission privately admonished the judge, and the judge agreed to be monitored by the Commission and to meet regularly with a mentor judge for 1 year. If the judge complies with the conditions, the complaint will be closed at the end of that period and remain confidential.
(A footnote notes that the summaries use only masculine pronouns to prevent identifying any of the participants.)
Most of the docketed complaints contained multiple allegations.The most frequent allegation was denial of a full opportunity to be heard, appearing in 64.3% of the complaints. Bias or prejudice was the second most frequent allegation, appearing in 44.6% of complaints. Of those, 20.0% alleged bias against criminal defendants and 16.0% alleged bias against self-represented litigants. Of the complaints alleging bias, bias against a particular gender and against the elderly or disabled each appeared in 12.0% of the complaints. Racial bias and socio-economic bias each appeared in 8.0% of complaints alleging bias. Other types of bias were alleged in the remaining 44.0% of complaints alleging bias. Disagreement with decisions and rulings appeared in 32.1% of the complaints (although that is not, standing alone, an allegation of misconduct). Inappropriate demeanor was alleged in 44.6% of complaints. Denial of constitutional rights appeared in 17.9% of complaints. Failure to follow the law or incompetence was alleged in 10.5% of complaints. Abuse of authority and bringing the judiciary into disrepute were each alleged in 7.1% of complaints. Administrative problems and conspiracy were each alleged in 5.4% of complaints. Coercion to settle or plead and lack of integrity were each alleged in 3.6% of complaints. Improper ex parte communication and conflict of interest were each alleged in 1.8% of the complaints filed in 2014.