A recent judicial discipline decision is a reminder that, in addition to rebuffing attempts by attorneys and parties to communicate privately, a judge must resist the temptation to initiate an ex parte communication. The California Commission on Judicial Performance admonished a judge for instigating a conversation with a deputy district attorney about a case just after the trial but before sentencing. In the Matter of Scott, Decision and order (February 17, 2016). The Commission noted that the judge placed the deputy district attorney “in the unpleasant position of having to report the conversation to her supervisor.”
Shortly before noon on February 27, 2015, a jury found a defendant guilty in a case tried before the judge by Deputy District Attorney Kelly Meeker. That afternoon, Meeker returned to the courtroom to pick up equipment she had left there; the judge was seated at the court reporter’s desk, chatting with the bailiff and a court clerk. Meeker said hello to everyone and began to gather her things. The judge stood to leave and asked Meeker to come speak to him when she had a second. Meeker asked when he would like her to drop by. The judge responded, “Right now.” Meeker put down her equipment and walked to the judge’s chambers. While standing in the doorway, she told the judge that she was really looking forward to getting his feedback on her performance in trial, but that several people in her office had told her that it was necessary to wait until after sentencing. The judge told Meeker not to worry and that they would be “discreet,” or words to that effect. The judge then closed his chambers door and told her to sit down.
Despite several hints by Meeker that she wanted to leave (for example, that she needed to attend conferences in another courtroom), the judge continued to talk to her, told her that she had done a great job in the trial, and gave her feedback on her trial technique, for example, suggesting that she make her direct examinations shorter and be aggressive on rebuttal. The judge and Meeker also critiqued the deputy public defender’s performance. Finally, they discussed what sentence might be imposed.
As Meeker left the judge’s chambers, he said, “This conversation never happened.”
Shortly afterward, Meeker reported the conversation to her supervisor. A news article about the matter appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 17. The judge sent a self-report to the Commission that it received on March 27.
The judge had urged the Commission to take into consideration that he was a new judge at the time of the misconduct having just taken the bench in January 2015. However, the Commission noted that the judge’s statements demonstrated that he knew that his conversation was improper and that he was aware from his experience as an attorney that ex parte communications with judges are improper pursuant to the State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct.