Although allegations of legal error or an abuse of discretion generally do not constitute judicial misconduct (which explains the high dismissal rate for complaints about judges), there are exceptions to that rule. Three exceptions –an egregious error, a pattern of error, and a decision made in bad faith – were all illustrated in a discipline case that led to the removal of a justice of the peace by the Louisiana Supreme Court last week. In re Laiche, Opinion (Louisiana Supreme Court March 15, 2016). The Court found that the judge’s “faulty interpretation of the law, failure to faithfully enforce it, incompetence and gross negligence in the administration of his office, and general indifference to these failures” have “negatively affected many lives and cast a dark shadow on the judiciary as a whole.”
The judge’s misconduct arose in 2 unrelated disputes in which he granted peace bonds applied for by family members against other family members. (In Louisiana, in response to an application, a justice of the peace can require an individual to pay a peace bond that is held as security on the condition that the defendant not commit “the threatened or any related breach of the peace.”)
1 dispute involved “a heated and very unpleasant child custody case” that led to many altercations between the Vignes and LeBlanc families. Over several years, the judge issued multiple peace bond orders against the ex-husband, his family, and his girlfriend at the request of the ex-wife and her family.
The second dispute arose following the death of Marvin Henderson. Within a week, his children sought peace bonds against their stepmother, accusing her of inappropriate behavior following his death, including at his memorial service.
The Judiciary Commission found, and the Court agreed, that the judge had entered peace bond judgments without required hearings, had imposed peace bonds over the $1,000 maximum allowed by law, had imposed fees over the $15 cap set by law, had sentenced defendants who failed to pay the bond to more than the 5 days in jail allowed by law, had extended the terms of peace bonds beyond the 6-months allowed by law, and had not timely refunded peace bond money, in addition to other misconduct.
The Court held that some of the judge’s errors were egregious because they deprived individuals “of their freedom for an extensive period of time” or “violated the constitutional rights of the parties to present a defense,” noting “there is no greater expectation of our citizens” than that “judges will protect their constitutional rights before subjecting them to the loss of liberty.” The Court found a pattern of legal error both in the 8 instances in which the judge impermissibly extended the terms of peace bonds and his numerous other legal errors regarding peace bonds. Finally, the Court found that the judge made some of the errors in bad faith, noting, for example, that the judge personally benefitted from the “shortcuts” he took that allowed him to receive his justice of the peace salary without performing the work, leaving him more time for his law practice and other personal endeavors.
In an unrelated reminder of the importance of adhering to proper procedures, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to state chief justices and court administrators to address common court practices regarding the assessment and enforcement of fines and fees “that run afoul of the United States Constitution and/or other federal laws.” Noting the Department’s commitment “to assisting state and local courts in their efforts to ensure equal justice and due process for all those who come before them,” the letter lists 7 requirements grounded in the rights to due process and equal protection:
(1) Courts must not incarcerate a person for nonpayment of fines or fees without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing that the failure to pay was willful;(2) Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants unable to pay fines and fees;
(3) Courts must not condition access to a judicial hearing on the prepayment of fines or fees;
(4) Courts must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, counsel, when enforcing fines and fees;
(5) Courts must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections;
(6) Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release; and
(7) Courts must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private contractors.
The letter urged the recipients to review rules and procedures, to forward a copy of the letter to every judge in the jurisdiction, to provide appropriate training, “and to develop resources, such as bench books, to assist judges in performing their duties lawfully and effectively.”