When a judge’s relationship with someone involved in a case is close enough to require disqualification or at least disclosure may sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. But the question is easy when a judge vacations with a litigant, posts pictures of them together on Facebook, and receives a caution from a conduct commission. Further, any appearance of partiality becomes an obvious impropriety when the friend gets favorable treatment in court, as a recent discipline case from Indiana illustrates.
Based on a conditional agreement for discipline, the Indiana Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for failing to recuse from a case in which his friend had received a ticket and securing favorable treatment for his friend. In the Matter of Johanningsmeier (Indiana Supreme Court August 10, 2018) .
The judge is close friends with B.K., who received a speeding ticket in April 2015. In early June 2015, the judge and B.K. vacationed together. On June 18, B.K. failed to appear in court on the ticket; a default judgment was entered, and his license was suspended.
On June 30, B.K. filed a petition for a trial de novo in the judge’s court. The judge granted the motion the same day and reinstated B.K.’s license, without disclosing the relationship or giving the prosecutor an opportunity to respond, contrary to the trial de novo rule.
In March 2016, in a private caution letter, the Commission advised the judge that his close friendship with B.K. would cause a reasonable person to question his impartiality. Nevertheless, the judge did not recuse or set the matter for hearing. The case remained in limbo.
Shortly before Christmas 2016, the judge posted on Facebook a photo of himself, his sister, and B.K. at a party in the judge’s home. The photo was visible to the public. B.K. “liked” the photo.
On March 6, 2017, the prosecutor moved for a bench trial in B.K.’s case. Instead of recusing, the judge set the motion for hearing on March 20. At the hearing, he stated on the record that the case involved “a friend of mine” and “I was hoping we could just get the State to dismiss it.” The prosecutor immediately orally moved to dismiss the case, and the judge granted the motion.
The Court found that the judge’s failure to recuse and other actions were “obvious violations of a judge’s most basic ethical duty—impartiality,” diminished public confidence in the judiciary, and “’erode[d] the public’s perception of the courts as dispensers of impartial justice.’”