Hot mic and disruptions

2 judges were recently disciplined for misconduct related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On June 8, 2021, after a telephonic hearing in a civil case in which he had sanctioned one of the parties, a judge said that the hearing was adjourned.  Then, believing he was no longer on the line with the parties or on the record, the judge, who was alone in his chambers, said, “Kicked that motherf***er’s a**.”  In fact, he had not disconnected, the attorneys were still on the line, and the courtroom’s audio recording was still activated.  The attorney whose client had been sanctioned believed the comment was directed at him. 

Immediately after the hearing, the judge realized what had happened, called both attorneys to apologize, and called the Commission to self-report.  Later that week, he recused himself from the case.

Based on a stipulation and agreement, the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly admonished him.  In re Dixon, Stipulation, agreement, and order (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct June 24, 2022).

During the Commission investigation, the judge explained that he sometimes uses crude language in private and his comment had not been directed at a particular person or party but was an expression of relief at finishing the hearing, which he had not intended the attorneys to hear.  The Commission found that because the comment was made after a hearing in which one side was sanctioned, “the comment was reasonably interpreted to be directed at a particular attorney creating an appearance of bias or prejudice against that attorney.” The Commission noted that, after the incident, the judge had put reminders to use appropriate language by the equipment used for remote meetings.

The Commission stated:

[J]udges are the embodiment of the justice system, and they are directed by the Code to “aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, and integrity, and competence,” and regardless of his intention, the impact on the listeners was demeaning and upsetting.  It created the impression the judge was disrespectful and disdainful of counsel. . . .  Language that manifests bias or prejudice, or profanity, has no place in a court proceeding.  Discourteous and disrespectful behavior by a judge erodes confidence in the quality of justice administered by that judge, not only for the direct targets of such behavior, but also for all those who witness it.

* * *

A judge explained that the difficulty of maintaining court operations during the pandemic contributed to the significant delays in deciding 3 small claims cases for which she agreed to be was publicly admonished.  In re Howson, Stipulation, agreement, and order (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct June 24, 2022).  She also noted that she had been covering the caseloads of judicial officers with health issues and had been displaced from her chambers while the courthouse was being repaired.  The delays were for approximately 722 days, 406 days, and 115 days between the trial of the case and entry of the judge’s decision.

The Commission stated that it was “mindful of the difficulty and stresses caused by the pandemic and other court disruptions” and noted that the judge “has a reputation as a very careful and thoughtful jurist.”  But the Commission emphasized:  “The nature of this type of misconduct – decisional delay – is inherently problematic because it deprives litigants of timely justice, which often cannot be remedied through the appellate process.  Issuing timely decisions is a core function for any judicial officer and the misconduct here was not isolated.” 

* * *

12 other prior public sanctions and 2 private sanctions have addressed misconduct related to the pandemic.

  • Judge failed to grant a continuance requested by an attorney who had COVID-19 symptoms or to make arrangements to allow the attorney to appear telephonically and then granted a default judgment against the attorney’s client, a defendant in a civil traffic case.  Sears, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct January 26, 2022) (admonishment).
  • Judge spoke sharply to court staff when disconnected from a Zoom hearing and yelled at court staff when lawyers and parties were allowed into the courtroom prior to the scheduled time for a case.  Quickle, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct June 11, 2021) (reprimand).
  • Judge repeatedly failed to wear a face covering when interacting with the public and staff in court facilities as required by administrative orders, failed to require individuals in his courtroom to abide by administrative orders, and appeared “to publicly denigrate those orders.”  Goodman, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct May 13, 2021) (reprimand).
  • Judge displayed 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 effectIn the Matter Concerning Connolly, Decision and order (California Commission on Judicial Performance April 2, 2021) (admonishment for this and other misconduct).
  • , in addition to other misconduct.  In the Matter of Guthrie, Order (New Mexico Supreme Court April 25, 2022) (permanent resignation).
  • Judge engaged in disruptive behavior during a meeting about the court’s COVID-19 safety plan, confronted another magistrate and the Chief Magistrate after the meeting, and made an inappropriate statement to a clerk about the Chief Magistrate’s complaint to Disciplinary Counsel.  In the Matter of Rivers, 862 S.E.2d 449 (South Carolina 2021) (6-month suspension without pay).
  • Judge stated in the courtroom:  “The Grand Wizard of our Supreme Court said we have to wear these masks.”  Ledsinger (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct September 28, 2020).
  • Judge failed to comply with the court’s COVID-19 plan on courtroom capacity and social distancing and commented in the courtroom that he wished the chief justice “would win an award so that the COVID-19 mandates” would end.  Hinson (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct December 15, 2020) (reprimand).
  • Judge stated in a post on the county’s Facebook page that he would release anyone brought before him charged with violating stay-at-home orders issued during the COVID-19 public health emergency.  Public Admonition of Black (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct February 28, 2022).
  • Judge, in addition to other misconduct, issued peace bond warrants for President Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, alleging that their immigration policies, COVID-19 health restrictions, and firearms policies constituted threats to commit offenses under Texas law against multiple anonymous complainants; the warrants were the subject of national news coverage, and the judge participated in media interviews concerning the warrants.  Public Warning of Black (Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct April 7, 2022).
  • Judge declined to determine who was attempting to appear at the end of a calendar via Zoom.  In re Burchett, Stipulation, agreement, and order of reprimand (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct April 23, 2021) (reprimand for this and other misconduct).
  • Judge criticized the prosecution of a case in comments that he thought could only be heard by the court employees in the courtroom but that were being broadcast through the court’s YouTube channel.  In re Antush, Stipulation, agreement, and order (Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct November 19, 2021) (admonishment).
  • Magistrate posted on Facebook that if a citizen were criminally cited for not wearing a mask and appeared before him, he would dismiss the citation because he thought it was unconstitutional.  Described in Public Admonishment of Weiss (West Virginia Judicial Investigation Commission April 25, 2022).

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