COVID-19 concerns

3 more judges have been publicly sanctioned for their conduct related to the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the total to 7.

Accepting an agreement for discipline by consent, the South Carolina Supreme Court suspended a magistrate for 6 months for his disruptive behavior during a meeting about the court’s COVID-19 safety plan, his confrontations with another magistrate and the Chief Magistrate after the meeting, and his statement to a clerk about the Chief Magistrate’s complaint to Disciplinary Counsel.  In the Matter of Rivers (South Carolina Supreme Court August 11, 2021).  The magistrate recognized that “his concerns regarding Covid-19 do not excuse his behavior and that his disruptive behavior reflected poorly on his professional judgment and temperament.”  The Court also ordered that the magistrate complete at least 15 hours of anger management counseling and pay the costs of the investigation

On May 14, 2020, the Florence County magistrates and clerks met to discuss the COVID-19 safety plan for re-opening the magistrates’ courts to the public consistent with the Supreme Court’s order on evictions and foreclosures dated April 30, 2020.  During the meeting, Magistrate Rivers repeatedly asked questions, spoke in a loud voice, and challenged the Chief Magistrate’s plan for reopening.  As the meeting continued, the magistrate “became visibly agitated,” read aloud parts of the April 30 order, and challenged the Chief Magistrate’s implementation plan.  Another magistrate told him to follow the Chief Magistrate’s direction.

Because of the magistrate’s “continued disruptions, the Chief Magistrate apologized to the other meeting attendees and adjourned the meeting prematurely without completing the agenda.”

After the meeting, Magistrate Rivers left the room and confronted the magistrate who had suggested he follow the Chief Magistrate’s directions; he expressed his displeasure and told the other magistrate not to disrespect him again.  The magistrate then returned to the meeting room, startling the Chief Magistrate as she turned to leave the room.  Magistrate Rivers hit his hands together and loudly requested that the Chief Magistrate show him respect in the future.  The Chief Magistrate became concerned for her physical safety.  The next day, the Chief Magistrate reported the incident to the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

Approximately a month later, Magistrate Rivers told a county clerk that the Chief Magistrate “does not know who she is dealing with and she will regret doing this,” referring to the complaint.

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The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded a first judge for speaking sharply to court staff when she was disconnected from a Zoom hearing and yelling at court staff when lawyers and parties were allowed into the courtroom prior to the scheduled time for a case; the Commission also ordered the judge to complete the courses “Leadership for Judges” and “Mindfulness for Judges” offered by the National Judicial College.  Quickle, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct June 11, 2021).

On September 11, 2020, the judge was presiding over a dependency matter that was conducted remotely via Zoom.  During the hearing, the judge lost her connection to Zoom.  A court clerk, S.H., advised the attorneys and parties that the judge had been disconnected, and the hearing was paused while the judge attempted to get reconnected.  When she rejoined the hearing, the judge stated sharply, “I am incredibly unhappy because this is going to be a pain.  So, I do not understand why I was thrown off Zoom on my laptop, my iPad, and my phone.”  The attorneys and litigants heard her comments, and the clerk felt “embarrassed and belittled.”

On October 16, the judge became upset that parties and lawyers for a scheduled matter had been allowed into the courtroom prior to a designated time and yelled at the clerk, S.H.  After learning that it was another court employee who had allowed the parties to enter the courtroom, the judge went to speak to the elected clerk of the court, and, as she did, her office door slammed shut in front of other clerks and the public.  The judge denied deliberately slamming the door, but other court employees believed that she had slammed the door intentionally.  Court employees also overhead the judge yelling at the elected court clerk about the matter.

In interviews with the Commission’s investigator, 6 court employees confirmed these incidents and also confirmed a pattern of the judge “yelling or using an angry, rapid-fire tone with individuals during the time she has been on the bench” that made them feel disrespected and that created tension in the court.  However, the employees also “reported a recent improvement in the judge’s demeanor.”  The judge disagreed with some of the employees’ perceptions of her conduct but stated that she had “reevaluated my interactions with staff and other elected officials, as well as my overall demeanor with the goal of avoiding any further misunderstandings or hurt feelings.”

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The Arizona Commission publicly reprimanded a second judge for judge repeatedly failing to wear a face covering when interacting with the public and staff in court facilities as required by administrative orders issued by the Arizona Supreme Court and the Maricopa County Superior Court in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, failing to require individuals in his courtroom to abide by administrative orders regarding the use of face coverings, and appearing “to publicly denigrate those orders.”  Goodman, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct May 13, 2021).  The complaint had been filed by a presiding judge.

The Commission found that the judge’s failure “caused some court personnel to refuse to enter his courtroom and led to distress among court employees.”  He persisted, “despite counseling and admonitions by two presiding judges.”  The judge was ordered to work only in the courtroom or his office but also “violated that directive, resulting in an order banning him from the courthouse entirely, requiring judges pro tem to preside over matters that could not be handled remotely.”  The Commission found that the judge’s “conduct needlessly consumed judicial time and resources, including an internal investigation, witness interviews, and repeated interventions by two presiding judges,” rejecting his characterization of his conduct as “[s]poradic human omissions.”

The judge also refused to regularly review his court emails, explaining that he opens court emails “maybe once a month.”  The Commission noted that “important court business is conducted via email, particularly during the time period at issue here, when pandemic-related communications and orders were commonplace” and stated that his practice was inconsistent with the judge’s obligation to “cooperate with other judges and court officials in the administration of court business.”

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4 other judges have previously been publicly sanctioned for conduct related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In the Matter Concerning Connolly, Decision and order (California Commission on Judicial Performance April 2, 2021) (admonishment for, in addition to other misconduct, displaying improper demeanor toward 2 criminal defense attorneys appearing by phone for an arraignment on the first day after the stay-at-home order was in effect); Ledsinger (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct September 28, 2020) (reprimand for stating, “the Grand Wizard of our Supreme Court said we have to wear these masks”); Hinson (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct December 15, 2020) (reprimand for failing to comply with the court’s COVID-19 plan on courtroom capacity and social distancing and commenting that he wished the chief justice “would win an award so that the COVID-19 mandates” would end); In re Burchett, Stipulation, agreement, and order of reprimand (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct April 23, 2021) (reprimand for, in addition to other misconduct, declining to determine who was attempting to appear at the end of a calendar via Zoom).

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