Although judges’ using the internet or social media to independently investigate facts at issue in cases has been a hot topic recently (see discussion here, for example), judges still violate the prohibition the old-fashioned way as a recent judicial discipline case demonstrates.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended a court commissioner for 15 days without pay for speaking with the police chief and reviewing the police file about the conflict between neighbors behind a pending case and then falsely telling the parties that law enforcement and the courts had agreed that any further calls to the police would result in all involved receiving disorderly conduct tickets that would be sustained regardless of the circumstances. In the Matter of Calvert (Wisconsin Supreme Court June 15, 2018).
In September 2015, as part of an ongoing dispute between next-door neighbors, a petition for a harassment injunction and a request for a temporary restraining order was filed alleging that the respondents had repeatedly harassed the petitioners, including pointing surveillance cameras at their house. Before holding a hearing or deciding whether to enter a TRO, the commissioner, on his own initiative, went to the police station and obtained from the police chief a summary of the conflicts between the parties and their contacts with the police department. The police chief told the commissioner that he had visited the respondents’ residence and that there were no cameras pointed at the petitioners’ property. The commissioner also reviewed the neighbors’ “contact file” kept by the police department, including police statements, and asked the police chief if there was any basis for a citation.
In denying the petitioners’ request for a temporary restraining order, the commissioner considered the information provided by the police chief and in the police file.
At a hearing regarding the preliminary injunction, after the testimony of several witnesses and arguments from both sides, the commissioner denied the request without first disclosing his contact with the police. The commissioner then stated:
What is going to happen, though, is that anything between these two neighbors is going to stop as of today. Period. End of story. And how it’s going to stop is this: I’ve already talked to [the police] chief [ . . . ] as of yesterday. What’s going to happen is, if you call the Oconto Police Department, or the Sheriffs Department, or, you call them, they are going to come out, they are not going to have to listen as to what took place because if they get called out to either of your places, complaining about each other, what’s going to happen—they’re going to issue mutual disorderly conduct tickets. So, I don’t care who calls. You call, either of you call, they are going to come out, they are going to issue a disorderly conduct to you and they are going to issue a disorderly conduct to you. Alright?
Now, if you wish to take that ticket into municipal court, and argue about whether you were disorderly or not, go ahead because I’ve already talked to [the municipal judge] in Oconto [ . . . ] and I’ve told him the problem with this situation, enough is enough, it’s been going on for twelve/thirteen years, I’m putting an end to it, and I told him, “I don’t care what either one of you say.” He’s going to find you guilty and issue you a fine. He knows that, he’s with it, he’s tired of it, the Police Department’s tired of it, alright? If you want to de novo his decision, which you have a right to do[,] under the statute[,] upon finding you guilty, that’s fine because it’ll get de novo’d and it’ll get de novo’d up here to me and guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to uphold it and you’re both going to pay a fine.
Now, with regard to a court commissioner, you have a right to de novo that, too. Go ahead because I’m gonna tell either one of these circuit court judges, “Enough is enough. This is how we’re going to handle it.” I want nothing further going on.
In fact, the commissioner had not directed the police chief to issue mutual disorderly conduct citations to the neighbors regardless of fault and the municipal judge had not agreed to find the neighbors guilty regardless of fault.
The Court emphasized that the misconduct was “undeniably serious,” stating “a judge’s objectivity and impartiality are critical to the proper functioning of the judicial system.” It explained:
[The commissioner’s] behavior was far from objective and impartial. He independently investigated the facts of a case pending before him—an effort that included engaging in an ex parte communication with the police chief. He then lied to the parties in a particularly manipulative manner, falsely claiming that he had communicated with individuals in the judicial and law enforcement systems in such a way that the parties were doomed to failure and future legal troubles should they ever seek additional recourse. We cannot abide such assurances by a judge to rig the judicial and criminal justice systems against its participants.