“Absolutely nothing to justify”

Adopting the findings of misconduct and recommended sanction of the Professional Conduct Board based on stipulations, the Ohio Supreme Court suspended a judge for 1 year without pay for his undignified, improper, and discourteous demeanor toward a criminal defendant and the defendant’s girlfriend in his courtroom, for ordering that the defendant’s girlfriend take a drug test, and for sentencing her to 10 days in jail for contempt when she refused.  Disciplinary Counsel v. Repp (Ohio Supreme Court November 9, 2021).

The Court emphasized its holding in prior judicial discipline cases that “’the power to punish for contempt is properly used to secure the dignity of the courts, not to demean and intimidate people,’ and that abusing that power serves to cast doubt on the judicial officer’s impartiality and to weaken public perception of the integrity of the judiciary.”  The Board had emphasized that the girlfriend had done “absolutely nothing to justify [the judge’s] attention in the courtroom—let alone his order that she be drug tested” and that she “suffered great personal indignities and emotional distress as the result of the security and medical screenings she had to endure during her incarceration, on top of the anxiety regarding the care and well-being of her two young children.” 

On March 11, 2020, A.O. left her 2 young daughters in the car with their grandmother and entered the judge’s courtroom to observe the arraignment and probation-violation hearing of the girls’ father, T.D., who had been arrested the previous day on a bench warrant for violating the terms of his probation by failing to appear at a drug court program.  A.O. sat in the back row of the courtroom and waited quietly for T.D.’s case to be called.

On several occasions, the judge addressed A.O. from the bench although the video recording of the proceedings does not show that A.O. brought any attention to herself.

During the proceedings in an unrelated case, the judge stated, “Going to be lots of drug tests today.  Is that [T.D.’s] girlfriend back there?  I don’t know.  I thought maybe it was.”  After the defendant in that case stated that he did not believe in using drugs, the judge stated, “That’s good.  I wish all of us could say that.  Right, [A.O.]?”  A.O. did not respond to the judge’s comments.

Before calling the next case, the judge stated, “Oh, before we get started, I think [A.O.’s] under the influence.  I want her drug tested.”  A.O. had made no disturbance in the courtroom and did not have a case pending before the judge, was not on probation, and had never been charged with or convicted of a drug-related offense.

The bailiff directed A.O. to follow him out of the courtroom to the probation department so that the drug test could be administered.  A.O. complied.   In a text, she told T.D.’s mother, who was still watching their daughters, that she was afraid to leave the courthouse because she thought that the judge would issue a warrant for her arrest.  In another text, she asked her sister to come get her daughters because T.D.’s mother had to go to work.

At the probation department, A.O. requested a lawyer but was told that she was not eligible for court-appointed counsel because she had not been charged with a crime.  When A.O. said that she would not take a drug test, the probation officer stated that A.O. would go back in front of the judge after he was done with lunch.

Approximately 10 minutes after A.O. had left the courtroom, the judge called T.D.’s case.  T.D. appeared by video from the county jail.  The judge greeted him by stating, “Hold it.  Hold it.  Who’s that vision?  That vision of a man I haven’t seen in so long?  Ho, just getting by, doing his own thing.  Holy Smokes.  How you doing. [T.D.]?  How you been?”  T.D. replied, “You know, not too bad.  Just going to work, coming home, going to work, coming home and slipped up and got caught, you know.”  The judge responded, “Slipped up and got caught.  Yeah, baby.  Slipped up and got caught.”

The prosecutor recited the charges and T.D. entered a no-contest plea.  After accepting T.D.’s plea, the judge stated that he had been looking for T.D. in the drug court program and then asked T.D. whether he or A.O. had recently overdosed.  At the time, the judge did not have any verified evidence that T.D. or A.O. had recently overdosed.  After reading the police report, which indicated that A.O. was in the car with T.D. at the time of his arrest, the judge stated, “Wow.  [A.O.’s] down here.  She’s probably going to go to jail too.  Who’s watching the kids [T.D.]?”  When T.D. stated that his dad was probably taking care of the children, the judge laughed and said, “Your dad.  I heard your dad went to jail for you, too; is that right?”  T.D. replied that he was not sure, and the judge said, “Yes, he did,” although he had no verified evidence to support that statement.

The judge sentenced T.D. to a 180-day jail term for one case and a 30-day jail term for a second case, to be served concurrently.  The prosecutor recommended an additional 150-day jail sentence for T.D.’s probation violations.  When T.D. asked whether the 150 days would be concurrent with his other sentence, the judge replied, “Uh, what do you think, [T.D.]?  Am I giving two for one today?  I don’t think so.  I hate to saddle the Seneca County Jail with you, but, [T.D.], you’ve been so, you know, defiant about this and haven’t followed through with a thing.  I’m trying to help you out.  I know you overdosed since then.  I’m giving you the 150 days.  That’s consecutive * * * not concurrent.  Good luck.”

After lunch, the probation officer took A.O. back into the courtroom and told the judge that she had refused to take a drug test.  When the judge asked why, A.O. explained that she did not think she had done anything to be in trouble.  The judge stated, “Okay.  Well, you come into my courtroom, I think you’re high, you’re in trouble.”  A.O. replied, “Okay.  I’m not, though.”  The judge then asked A.O. whether she wanted to take the drug test, and when she stated that she did not, he said:  “Can I have a journal entry.  We’re going to hold you in contempt.  I’m going to submit and commit you for ten days.  When you decide you want to take a test, then I’ll, then we’ll talk about this again.  All right?”  A.O. replied, “Okay.”  The judge stated, “Is there anything else?  Remand to custody.  You have the keys, [A.O.]”

A.O. was immediately remanded to the custody of the sheriff, handcuffed, and transported to the county jail.

At the jail, A.O. experienced several indignities.  She was required to take a pregnancy test and undergo 2 full-body scans.  The female officer who conducted the scans allegedly detected anomalies that she believed could have been contraband inside A.O.’s body.  A more senior officer, who was a male, was called to review the scan.  Although the female officer attempted to cover A.O.’s breast and genital areas on the screen while the male officer reviewed the scan, the male officer told the female officer that that was unnecessary, and then the male officer asked A.O. whether she had pierced nipples.  A.O. did not respond.  She was handcuffed and transported to the hospital where she was required to submit to a second pregnancy test and a CT scan or an MRI scan.  No contraband was found, and she was returned to the jail.

A few hours later, A.O. became scared and worried about her children and told a correctional officer that she was willing to take the drug test because she wanted to go home.  The officer replied that A.O. was not allowed to take the test and that she already “had her chance.”

On the evening of her arrest, A.O. retained an attorney to represent her.  The next morning, her attorney filed a notice of appeal and a motion requesting that her sentence be stayed pending the appeal.  During a hearing on A.O’s motions later that day, the prosecutor moved to vacate the contempt finding, and the judge agreed but only on the condition that A.O. agree to a drug-treatment assessment.  However, he no longer had jurisdiction due to A.O.’s appeal.  After that hearing, A.O. was released from jail.

In September, the district court of appeals reversed the judge’s judgment of contempt against A.O., finding that the record was “devoid of any specific observations or findings by [the judge] of [A.O.’s] conduct in the courtroom supporting his stated belief that she was under the influence while observing court proceedings” and that the judge did not have the authority to compel her to submit to a drug test.  On remand, the judge dismissed the case.

The Board rejected the judge’s testimony that his misconduct was motivated by a desire to help A.O., finding that the judge’s statements to A.O. and T.D. were arrogant and exhibited “a desire to prove that his suspicions about A.O.’s impairment were accurate and consistent with unsubstantiated rumors that he had heard about her and T.D.’s past drug use.”  The Board also found that the judge’s “hearing testimony demonstrated that he was very frustrated with T.D. and that he had channeled that frustration toward A.O.”

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