Parsing truth

A lack of candor can be misconduct and/or an aggravating factor in determining the appropriate sanction in judicial discipline proceedings, sometimes leading to removal when the underlying misconduct otherwise might not.  But courts and judicial conduct commissions have identified different degrees of dishonesty with different consequences.  In 2 recent cases, for example, the Michigan Supreme Court and Judicial Tenure Commission discussed actionable falsehoods, statements “unworthy of belief,” selective or incorrect memories, imprecise expressions, intentional misrepresentations, inaccurate or careless answers, lying under oath, guesses, and speculation.

The Court publicly censured 1 judge for directing insulting, demeaning, and humiliating comments and gestures to 3 children during a contempt proceeding in a protracted and highly contentious divorce and custody case.  In re Gorcyca (Michigan Supreme Court July 28, 2017).  The Commission had also found that the judge committed misconduct by holding the oldest child in contempt for refusing to participate in parenting time with his father and ordering the 3 children confined to a children’s residential center until their father determined they had purged themselves of contempt.  The Court agreed that the judge committed legal error but concluded that error did not constitute judicial misconduct because she had acted with due diligence (appointing attorneys for the children and holding a hearing) and her error could not be fairly characterized as willful failure to observe the law (no one in the courtroom offered alternatives for handling the difficult circumstances or suggested that she was crossing a line).

In addition to other inappropriate comments, the judge had said to the father with respect to the oldest child, 13-year-old LT, “Dad, if you ever think that he has changed and therapy has helped him and he’s no longer like Charlie Manson’s cult, then you let us know and we can do it.”  While making that statement, she made a circular gesture with her finger near her temple.

In response to the Commission inquiry, the judge denied that she had circled her temple with her finger “to indicate or even imply that [LT] was crazy,” explaining that she believed the motion simulated “a wheel moving forward” to indicate that the father should let her know if LT made any forward movement as a result of therapy.

The master had found that answer was false.  The Commission disagreed, stating that knowledge that a statement is false and an intention to deceive are required.  It explained:

The fact that a statement may be incorrect does not, by itself, render the statement “false” within the context of a legal proceeding.  It may be discredited, or deemed unworthy of belief, but given the limits of human memory and perception, as well as the limitations of language, it would be unfair to impute motives of deception or falsehood to everyone who says something that someone else finds incredible, or that proves to be incorrect.  Selective memory does not equal falsehood; incorrect memory does not equal falsehood; imprecision in expression does not equal falsehood; even an answer that one chooses to disbelieve does not equal a falsehood.

The Commission noted that, during the hearing, the judge had “clarified that she did not recall making the gesture and was unaware she had done so until she viewed the video recording of the proceedings,” but that, when she gave her response, she had felt “obligated to provide her best guess about what she intended.”  The Commission emphasized that “the simple answer — ‘I do not remember what was in my mind at the time’ — would have been both accurate and helpful” but concluded that, “as long as she was candid about her lack of memory,” her “speculation about her motives or intentions in performing actions months earlier — actions that she could not even recall” were not “actionable falsehoods.”

However, noting the judge’s response was sufficiently misleading to require a hearing, the Commission requested over $12,500 in costs pursuant to a rule that authorizes costs “if the judge engaged in conduct involving fraud, deceit, or intentional misrepresentation, or if the judge made misleading statements to the [C]ommission, the [C]ommission’s investigators, the [M]aster, or the Supreme Court.”

Disagreeing on review, the Michigan Supreme Court stated that a misleading statement required an actual intent to deceive or at least some showing of wrongful intent.  It concluded that the judge had “merely speculated as to her intent” and that a guess was not akin to a misrepresentation or misleading statement.

* * *
In the second case, the Court suspended a judge for 9 months without pay for interfering with a police investigation at the scene of an accident involving his intern, interfering with the prosecution of the intern, and making an intentional misrepresentation to the Commission; the Court also ordered that the judge pay over $7,500 in costs.  In re Simpson (Michigan Supreme Court July 25, 2017).

In July 2013, Crystal Vargas accepted an internship with the judge.  Within days, the judge and Vargas began communicating with each other frequently by telephone call and text message, exchanging several thousand communications in 4 months, at all times of the day and night and on weekends.

On September 8, the judge and Vargas exchanged 6 text messages between 1:25 a.m. and 2:29 a.m. and 6 text messages between 4:20 a.m. and 4:23 a.m.  At about the time of the latter messages, Vargas was involved in a motor vehicle accident less than 2 miles from the judge’s home.  Vargas called the judge at 4:24 a.m., shortly after the accident.

While Vargas was still on the phone with the judge, Officer Robert Cole arrived at the scene.  As Cole was administering field sobriety tests to Vargas, the judge arrived.

Concluding that the judge’s “behavior at the accident scene constitutes judicial misconduct,” the Court found that the judge “used his position as a judge in an effort to scuttle a criminal investigation of his intern.”

[R]espondent exited his vehicle and approached Ms. Vargas and Officer Cole as sobriety tests were being performed.  Indeed, respondent interrupted the sobriety-testing process.  Respondent, who had prosecuted numerous drunk-driving cases on behalf of Superior Township before he became a judge, was certainly aware that Officer Cole was investigating whether Ms. Vargas was under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance.  Given these circumstances, when respondent began his interaction with Officer Cole by introducing himself as “Judge Simpson,” he appears at best to have failed to prudently guard against influencing the investigation and at worst to have used his judicial office in a not-so-subtle effort to interfere with the investigation.  Indeed, but for respondent’s status as a judge, Officer Cole would not have spoken to respondent until Officer Cole completed his investigation.  Next, respondent spoke to Ms. Vargas during the investigation without Officer Cole’s permission — another action an ordinary citizen would not have been permitted to take.  Finally, respondent’s question — “Well, does she just need a ride or something?”— was a transparent suggestion to Officer Cole to end his investigation and allow respondent to drive Ms. Vargas away from the scene.

Subsequently, the judge twice contacted the township prosecutor, describing Vargas as a “good kid” who was in a “pretty bad relationship,” noting that the prosecutor had met Vargas in the past and would be working with her in the future, raising an evidentiary issue, and discussing potential defense attorneys.  The Court concluded that the judge “improperly acted as a legal advocate for Ms. Vargas and used his position as a judge to thwart the township’s criminal prosecution of his intern,” succeeding for a time in delaying the charges, and that his “actions—individually and taken together” constituted judicial misconduct.

In his answer to the Commission complaint, the judge had stated that “the vast bulk” of his communications with Vargas “related to a complex, sensitive project” she was working on for him in People v. Nassif.  The Court agreed with the Commission finding that that statement was “an intentional misrepresentation or a misleading statement.”  The Court explained:

The sheer number of communications—which were frequently exchanged during the night and on weekends—is inconsistent with respondent’s explanation that the communications related to court business, including an in camera review of evidence in the Nassif case.  Moreover, respondent testified that he learned that the Nassif case was assigned to him on August 11 or 12, and that his court did not receive the evidence for the in camera review until September 12.  Yet respondent and Ms. Vargas had already exchanged a surfeit of communications by then.  In addition, this explanation was inconsistent with another explanation advanced by respondent—that the communications were attributable to the “problems” that Ms. Vargas was having with her former boyfriend, who allegedly had been violent toward her.

However, the Court disagreed with the Commission’s additional finding that the judge made a separate intentional misrepresentation or misleading statement while testifying under oath at the hearing.  In response to the question whether he had any contact with Vargas between midnight and 3:30 that morning, the judge had answered “no” but then added, “I don’t believe there were any text messages.  I don’t believe that there was any contact.”  In fact, telephone records indicated that the judge and Vargas exchanged 6 text messages between 1:25 a.m. and 2:29 a.m.

The Court concluded that the judge had not made an intentional misrepresentation because he had “equivocated by adding that he did not ‘believe’ that there was any communication.”

[C]onsidering this context, it appears that respondent simply may not have recalled the precise timing of a few of the many communications he had with Ms. Vargas—communications that were not central to the allegations of misconduct in this case.  We find that respondent’s testimony on this point was careless and that he provided inaccurate information.  However, we do not believe that the JTC has sustained its burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that respondent made an intentional misrepresentation or misleading statement regarding his contacts with Ms. Vargas before 4:00 a.m. on September 8, 2013.

The Court noted that the Commission had also “equivocated” by finding that the judge made “an intentional misrepresentation or misleading statement,” and the Court stated that, if the Commission intended to find that the judge made an ‘”intentional misrepresentation,’ it should not have expressed its finding in the alternative.”  The Court emphasized that “it is far from clear that a ‘misleading statement’ is equivalent to a ‘lie under oath,’” noting it has not addressed “whether materiality or an intention to deceive are necessary to prove that a judge testified falsely under oath.”  Finally, stating that the judge should not receive a more serious sanction simply because he denied the allegations of misconduct, the Court explained that a contrary rule “would create immense pressure on judges to stipulate to the charges or risk removal for fighting them.”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s