“Rabid,” “grave,” and “apoplectic”

In 3 recent cases, judges were sanctioned for verbal and/or physical confrontations inside and outside the courthouse and courtroom.

Tweeted confrontation about a parking space

Based on an agreement that included continued counseling for the judge, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission publicly censured a judge for a verbal confrontation about a parking space.  Re Karren, Letter (Arkansas Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission January 21, 2022).  In mitigation, the panel noted the judge’s desire to improve his “emotional and mental well-being,” “a topic that far too few people are willing to address in a public forum,” and expressed its hope that his candor “will help others in the judiciary who face complicated and stressful situations as part of their profession.”

On Friday, April 30, 2021, Davy Carter and his wife went to dinner in downtown Bentonville.  Their 20-year-old son, a college student at the nearby university, was meeting them and parked in a government parking lot a little after 7:00 p.m.  There were well-marked signs that stated, “Benton County employee parking only, 7 am to 5 pm.”  However, the location where Carter’s son parked had 4 spots reserved for the judge and others and a sign on the wall of the building that stated, “Reserved parking 24/7 violators towed.”

The judge had been sitting as special judge in Hot Springs, Arkansas during the workday.  He and his bailiff then drove back to the Benton County Courthouse where the bailiff had left his vehicle.

After dinner, Carter’s son and wife walked to the son’s vehicle.  When they arrived, the judge and his bailiff were there.

On Twitter, Davy Carter described what happened when he joined his wife and son in the parking lot:

I walked out and saw a very angry man with a gun on his hip and a cane berating my son and wife because my son parked in ‘his’ parking spot.  It was beyond berating, and like any dad or husband, immediately caught my attention.

Carter described the judge as “rabid” and “angry” even after his wife and son had repeatedly apologized.  In another tweet, Carter posted a 27-second video in which the judge, who was using a walking cane due to recent knee surgery, is shown throwing his cane to the ground while moving aggressively towards Carter.  During the confrontation, pedestrians, cyclists, and cars were passing by.

The incident attracted public attention through social media and traditional media coverage, particularly as Carter had been a member of the state general assembly and served as house speaker.  Eventually, local and national news outlets picked up the story.  Videos of the incident have been viewed thousands of times online.

Almost immediately after the incident, the judge sought professional counseling through the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program.

The Commission noted that “judges routinely order people to conduct themselves with self-control, show restraint, and avoid confrontation” and emphasized that “it is incumbent” on judges to “adhere to the same behavioral standards in their life encounters.”  Stating that the case “was about common courtesy and conduct when in a minor confrontation,”

the censure emphasized that judges “live in the same communities as the attorneys, staff, parties, and witnesses that appear on their dockets.  It is not too much to ask that our judiciary interact with the public with the same patience, self-control, and kindness that should be the social normal throughout our state.”

“Grave violation”

Accepting an agreement, the Georgia Supreme Court suspended a judge for 30 days without pay and ordered that he be publicly reprimanded for engaging in a verbal and physical altercation with a defendant.  Inquiry Concerning Hays, 868 S.E.2d 792 (Georgia 2022).

In December 2020, a defendant appeared before the judge for a first appearance hearing held in the jail complex.  The defendant began cursing at the judge in response to the bond determination and continued to curse at the judge while being led out of the hearing.  The judge verbally engaged with the defendant, followed him into a hallway, and exchanged more words with him.  The judge then grabbed the defendant and pushed him against the wall.  The defendant was handcuffed, his feet were shackled, and he was accompanied by a law enforcement officer.  The defendant never physically threatened the judge or anyone else and did not attempt to flee.  The defendant was not injured.

The Court noted that a 30-day suspension is one of the most significant sanctions it had “ever imposed, short of removal from office” but stated that, “given the circumstances, it would have to be.”  The Court explained.

It is a grave violation for a judge to use violence against any person appearing before him, except in self-defense or defense of others, which was not the situation here.  The rule of law enables our society to resolve disputes without resort to force.  When a judge uses force against someone appearing before him, that judge thus undermines the rule of law.  It removes the judge from the role of neutral arbiter.

However, the Court also concluded that removal was not necessary, explaining that “the incident — grave as it was — was momentary, and no actual injury was inflicted.”  In mitigation, the panel and the Court noted that the judge “is a well-respected member of the community who has served his country honorably as a member of the military,” had no “prior disciplinary history,” and had “forthrightly accepted full responsibility for this isolated, but serious, incident.”

“Excessively loud, to the point of yelling”

Based on its findings of misconduct, which were based on stipulations of fact, the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline publicly reprimanded a former judge for engaging in rude, loud outbursts towards counsel and witnesses in 6 cases.  In re Placey, Opinion and order (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline February 14, 2022).  The Court acknowledged the judge’s “resignation and realization that he cannot serve as a judge in the future,” noting that he had “sought medical help for his psychological difficulties before he was charged and has continued with that treatment” and that his “difficulties clearly played a major part in his misconduct.”

For example, one incident occurred while the judge was presiding over a hearing in which Nanci Samento asserted that Tony Samento had breached their marriage settlement agreement.  During Tony’s testimony, counsel for Nanci raised a hearsay objection, and the following exchange took place:

Judge:                Well, I don’t know what he is saying so I don’t know.
Attorney:          He was indicating what he learned from the State Police.
Judge:                And I don’t –
Tony:                  I’m sure there’s a record of this.
Judge:                Sir.
Tony:                  I’m sorry.
Judge:                Sit down now.  Down.  Out of that seat.
Tony:                  I’m sorry.
Judge:                Move it like you have a purpose.
Tony:                  I’m sorry, Your Honor.

The judge then stood up, and Tony abruptly slid his chair back, colliding with the wall behind the witness stand.  As the judge stood to leave, he had the following exchange with Tony’s attorney.

Judge:                I’ll tell you when I’m coming back.  It’s not going to be today.  You get your client under control or I am going to tear him up on the stand.  Do you understand me?
Attorney:          I’m not sure, Your Honor, but I’ll try to.
Judge:                He talks over me one more time, I am going to rule summarily against him.  Do you understand that?
Attorney:          Yes, Your Honor.

The audio recording of the proceeding established that the judge’s voice was “excessively loud, to the point of yelling.”

The judge then left the courtroom and did not return to the bench that day for the Samento matter.  Tony was not afforded an opportunity to finish his testimony or present further witnesses regarding the issue that was the basis for the hearing.

Subsequently, the judge found partially in favor of Nanci on the issue.  On review, the superior court vacated the judge’s decision and remanded the case for a hearing before another judge.  The superior court found that the transcript was “disconcerting” and confirmed the judge’s “hostility” toward Tony, concluding that the judge had denied Tony’s due process rights by abruptly terminating the hearing and had abused his discretion when he denied Tony’s motion for recusal.

In other incidents, the judge’s conduct was described as an “explosion,” “apoplectic,” “blanket screaming,” a “12” on a scale of “1-10,” “intimidating,” and “upsetting.”

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