Ticket-fixing “is the quintessential bad act of a judge,” creating “both the appearance and the reality of a two-track system of justice—one for his friends and family and another for all others.” Inquiry Concerning Stanford, Decision (California Commission on Judicial Performance January 11, 2012). Despite numerous cases sanctioning judges for the practice (see Judicial Conduct Reporter articles here and here), ticket-fixing remains a persistent, sometimes even systemic problem.
For example, the federal government indicted almost the entire Philadelphia Traffic Court bench in 2013 for their participation in “a widespread culture of giving breaks on traffic citations to friends, family, the politically-connected, and business associates.” The defendant-judges argued that providing “special consideration” for tickets did not constitute a federal crime because there were no allegations of bribery; the jury may have agreed as all of the defendants were acquitted on those charges (although some were convicted of perjury). However, since those acquittals, judicial discipline proceedings have been brought against several of the former defendants. For example, finding that giving “special consideration” to tickets was judicial misconduct, the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline recently removed one of the acquitted judges. In re Sullivan, Amended opinion and order (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline May 12, 2016). The Court emphasized that the judge’s misconduct went “to the sanctity of the judicial process — it involved deciding cases for reasons other than the evidence presented, and the conduct involved a pattern of manipulating cases.” The Court rejected the judge’s defense that he had only perpetuated a system of favoritism that had been in place when he took office.
Recently, based on a settlement agreement, the Michigan Supreme Court suspended a judge for 120 days without pay and censured her for reducing charges, dismissing charges outright, or modifying sentences in at least 20 criminal cases and dismissing at least 32 ticket cases following ex parte communications and without a hearing or authorization from the prosecutor, in addition to other misconduct. In re Church (Michigan Supreme Court May 25, 2016). The Court noted it may have imposed a different sanction but that, in light of the judge’s “serious and debilitating medical condition” (which it did not identify) and her acceptance of responsibility, deference to the Commission recommendation was warranted. (In a previous case, the Court had removed a judge for ticket-fixing and other misconduct. In re Justin, 809 N.W.2d 126 (Michigan 2012).)
Whereas a judge who fixes tickets is exercising too much authority over dispositions, failing to exercise the “quintessential judicial functions” of reviewing negotiated pleas and then accepting or rejecting them recently led to the sanction of a New York judge. In the Matter of Calano, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct May 9, 2016). The deputy town attorney and defendants in the majority of vehicle and traffic law cases reached agreements involving pleas to reduced charges, the imposition of fines and surcharges, and, in some instances, dismissal of charges. As the judge knew, the deputy town attorney told defendants that the proposed dispositions would be reviewed by a judge and required a judge’s approval. Most defendants paid their fines and/or surcharges immediately following the negotiations, however, and the court clerks entered the dispositions without the judge reviewing or approving them. At the discipline hearing, the judge testified that, because the deputy town attorney was “an officer of the court,” she trusted that the dispositions were within the parameters they had discussed and she was confident that the matters were disposed of fairly and without favoritism.
The Commission found that, by failing to oversee and approve the dispositions, the judge effectively delegated her judicial duties to the deputy town attorney and permitted him to dispose of cases without judicial oversight. The Commission concluded:
Only judges have authority and responsibility to accept or reject a negotiated plea; and dismissing and reducing charges, convicting defendants and imposing sentences are quintessential judicial functions requiring the exercise of judicial discretion. Placing such responsibilities in the hands of the prosecutor, who is not a neutral arbiter but an advocate, is especially problematic.
The Commission stated that “the fact that these practices predated her tenure in office does not excuse respondent’s misconduct.” (Her co-judge had resigned in 2014 and agreed not to serve in judicial office after the Commission had filed a formal complaint based on the same practice and other conduct.)
See also Public Warning of Jones and Order of Additional Education (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct February 29, 2016) (without reviewing plea agreements presented by the prosecutor, judge entered judgements that found defendants charged with crimes such as speeding, assault, driving with license suspended, or marijuana possession guilty of illegal parking and imposed fines that were over the amounts allowed by law for illegal parking).