Fines in judicial discipline cases

The $50,000 fine the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline imposed last month on a former supreme court justice for exchanging “sordid and offensive” e-mails with friends and professional acquaintances (see this earlier post for more information) matches the highest fines previously imposed in judicial discipline cases.

  • In 2003, the Florida Supreme Court reprimanded a judge and fined her $50,000 for pro-prosecutorial statements and misrepresentations during her election campaign. Inquiry Concerning Kinsey, 842 So. 2d 77 (Florida 2003).
  • In 2005, as part of an agreed disposition, the Massachusetts Judicial Conduct Commission suspended a judge for 1-year without pay and imposed a $50,000 fine for inappropriate conduct toward 2 female court employees. Press Release (Murray) (Massachusetts Judicial Conduct Commission November 28, 2005).

The Pennsylvania Court stated that, in light of the justice’s retirement, the $50,000 fine was “tantamount” to a 6-month suspension without pay.  Similarly, in Kinsey, the Court noted that the $50,000 fine represented approximately 50% of the judge’s yearly salary or a 6-month suspension without pay, which was the other option that the Judicial Qualifications Commission hearing panel had considered.

In In re Rodriquez, 828 So. 2d 1060 (Florida 2002), the Florida Supreme Court imposed a $40,000 fine, publicly reprimanded a judge, and suspended her for 4 months without pay for misleading statements made in campaign finance reports and violating state campaign laws.  The $40,000 represented approximately half of the salary she had received during an 8-month suspension with pay she had voluntarily taken while she was under investigation for possible criminal violations of the election laws.  (No criminal charges were filed.)  Noting that, when a judge is suspended or on leave, the salary for the senior judge appointed in her place is paid out of a special fund, the Court stated that the fine and the unpaid 4-month suspension would not necessarily make the state whole and instructed the Commission in the future to “also take into consideration, when determining the amount of any fine, the potential financial burden a given circuit incurs when it has to appoint a senior judge in the event of a suspension.”

In its recent case, the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline imposed the fine even though its constitutional authority does not expressly include “fine” in the list of available sanctions.  The Court concluded its authority to order “removal from office, suspension, censure, or other discipline” (emphasis added) provided it “wide latitude” to fashion “a sanction to address the unique circumstances of judicial discipline concerns,” including restoring public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.  The Court noted it commonly imposes sanctions other than those listed, such as reprimand and judicial probation.

Judicial conduct commissions in 9 states do have express authority to impose fines:  Florida, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota (called a civil penalty), Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, and West Virginia.  (In West Virginia, the fine cannot exceed $5,000.)

Other states have imposed other kinds of monetary penalties.

For example, the Rhode Island Supreme Court removed a former judge from office and ordered him to reimburse the state the portion of his salary that reflected the times he left court to go to a casino and gamble while the court remained open for judicial business.  In re Lallo, 768 A.2d 921 (Rhode Island 2001).  Rejecting his argument that the Court did not have the authority to impose a civil sanction in a disciplinary action, the Court concluded that restitution was consistent with its “authority to recommend remedial measures necessary to effectuate the statute.”

In In re James, 821 N.W.2d 144 (Michigan 2012), the Michigan Supreme Court removed a judge from office for, in addition to other misconduct, misappropriating public funds.  Directing the Judicial Tenure Commission to submit a bill of costs, the Court stated that it could include the amount that the judge had misappropriated that should have been allotted to victim restitution.

Pursuant to a stipulation, a former judge agreed to make restitution to a public university for the amount he received as compensation for teaching a class despite an advisory opinion stating that such employment was inconsistent with the state constitutional provision making full-time judges ineligible for other public employment; the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct also publicly admonished him for the teaching and for discussing legal representation with persons while a judge but after announcing his resignation.  In re Moberg, Stipulation and Agreement (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct August 6, 1993).

In addition to suspending a judge without pay for 3 months, the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline ordered him to pay restitution to a defendant for the legal expenses he incurred when the judge issued a result of a “stay-away” order against him at the request of acquaintance without conducting an evidentiary hearing or providing notice.  In re DeLeon, 967 A.2d 460 (2008), 2009 Pa. Jud. Disc. LEXIS 2 (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline 2009).

Recently, however, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to order a judge to “make whole” an incapacitated ward who had been deprived of at least $23,000 in part because the judge, without holding a hearing or requiring testimony from a representative of the ward’s interests, had signed an order authorizing a payment to the contractor who was building an accessible home for her without evidence that the estate was at fault for the alleged loss of $23,000 worth of tools.  Commission on Judicial Performance v. Shoemake, Opinion (Mississippi Supreme Court April 14, 2016).  The Court did suspend the judge for 30 days, reprimand him, and fine him $2,500.  In an opinion dissenting in part, 2 justices argued that those sanctions did not account for the fact that the judge’s negligence and inattention had cost the ward at least $23,000 that she was unable to recuperate.  In response, the majority reiterated “that the Court issues sanctions to maintain the dignity of the judiciary and to guard against future excesses, not to punish individual judges” and cited a 1982 decision in which it had rejected a Commission recommendation of “a restitutionary payment” because restitution is not one of the sanctions permitted by the constitution.  The dissent responded that the earlier case had not addressed “restitution from the standpoint of protection of the public” and that the Commission then had “recommended that a justice court judge be assessed civil costs for the procedure he used in collecting bad checks, an issue much different from the one presently before us.”


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