Recent cases

  • The California Commission on Judicial Performance publicly admonished a judge for, in 4 cases, making remarks reflecting poor demeanor and engaging in conduct that gave an appearance of bias and, in 3 of those cases, denying the parties a full right to be heard.  Public Admonishment of Hunt (California Commission on Judicial Performance July 5, 2022).
  • Based on the judge’s retirement and agreement not to seek, request, or accept any judicial office in the future in the state, the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission resolved a complaint against a former judge; a preliminary investigation had been started to determine whether, as chief judge of a county probate court, the judge had failed to properly supervise employees in their management of courts funds, employed unqualified individuals to assist with court-related tasks, improperly used notary services, improperly issued marriage licenses, and failed to regularly attend to his duties.  In re Brazier, Report of disposition (Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission July 7, 2022).
  • In lieu of filing formal disciplinary proceedings and with the referee’s consent, the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications publicly admonished a former referee for temporarily suspending a father’s parenting time with his minor daughter based, in part, on interview notes she received from a Guardian Ad Litem without circulating the notes to the father and his counsel or allowing them to review the notes when they asked to do so.  Public Admonition of Johnston (Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications July 1, 2022).
  • Based on a stipulation and agreement that included the judge’s resignation and affirmation that she will not seek office or accept judicial office in Indiana state courts or perform judicial duties in the state, the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications concluded its investigation of allegations that had resulted in the judge being arrested and charged with domestic battery in the presence of a child; the judge also agreed to relinquish her attorney license for 150 days by going on inactive status with the condition that she retake and pass the multistate professional responsibility examination prior to reactivating her law license.  In the Matter of Bell, Stipulation and agreement (Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications July 25, 2022).
  • Adopting the findings and commendation of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct, the New Jersey Supreme Court permanently disqualified a former judge from judicial service and publicly censured him for, while he was a part-time judge, grabbing a client’s representative in his private law office without her consent and for his “pervasive dishonesty” when testifying before the Committee.  In the Matter of Falcone, Order (New Jersey Supreme Court July 19, 2022).
  • The Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct suspended a judge with pay for 30 days for (1) media interviews and social media posts about a case against a pharmaceutical company that resulted in his disqualification from the case; (2) communications and a physical relationship with a female litigant and failing to disqualify himself from her case; and (3) failing to respond to the Board’s notices.  In re Young, Order (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct July 26, 2022).
  • Reviewing a stipulation, agreement, order, and recommendation, the Washington Supreme Court suspended a judge for 10 days without pay and publicly censured her for (1) telling a litigant who was contesting a traffic infraction that, given the evidence and his admission, it was clear he had committed the infraction; engaging in an off-the-record discussion with him; and when she came back on the record, dismissing the infraction without giving a reason or explaining the interruption in the recording; and (2) awarding a judgment as a counterclaim in a case in which the defendants had not filed a counterclaim.  In re Burchett, Order (Washington Supreme Court July 19, 2022).
  • The Washington State Bar Association Disciplinary Counsel accepted a former judge’s permanent resignation from the bar in lieu of discipline; pursuant to a plea agreement, the judge had pled guilty to intentionally touching with sexual motivation 2 court employees.  In re Gallina, Resignation form (Washington State Bar Association April 25, 2022) (). 
  • Adopting the findings of a special committee, the Judicial Council of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit publicly reprimanded a judge for entering into a separation agreement that created the appearance that he had received “a large payment on the eve of taking the bench for no coherent reason” or had agreed to practice law while serving as a judge.  In the Matter of Dawson, Memorandum and order (4th Circuit Judicial Council July 29, 2022).

Throwback Thursday

20 years ago this month:

  • The California Commission on Judicial Performance removed a judge from office for (1) instructing clerks to dismiss 3 tickets received by an acquaintance, the acquaintance’s wife, and his niece and dismissing a ticket received by the minor son of a reserve deputy sheriff who had occasionally acted as the judge’s bailiff and (2) attempting to influence other judicial officers regarding his godfather’s speeding ticket, about the bail for the daughter of a family from his church, and in a juvenile delinquency proceeding involving a family he had represented while an attorney.  Inquiry Concerning Platt, Decision and order (California Commission on Judicial Performance August 5, 2002).
  • Based on a joint recommendation and stipulation of facts, the Illinois Courts Commission suspended a judge without pay for 6 months for (1) submitting tax returns signed by an attorney as “paid tax preparer” when the attorney had not prepared the returns; (2) signing an attorney’s name as “paid tax preparer” to tax returns; (3) presiding over a case involving his wife’s daughter; (4) presiding over a case involving a friend; (5) failing to identify 1 creditor and 3 lawsuits in which he was the defendant on his financial disclosure statements; and (6) failing to appear when a civil case in which he was a defendant was scheduled for trial and personally asked the presiding judge for a continuance.  In re Kutrubis (Illinois Courts Commission August 30, 2002).
  • With his consent, the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications publicly admonished a senior judge for rulings in 2 criminal cases based on facts outside the evidence or before the state had presented its evidence.  Public Admonition of Brewer (Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications August 22, 2002).
  • Adopting the findings and recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Performance, the Mississippi Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge for, in violation of a statute, ordering a handgun seized from a minor forfeited to the court even after charges against the minor were dismissed.  Commission on Judicial Performance v. Lewis, 830 So. 2d 1138 (Mississippi 2002).
  • The Indiana Supreme Court approved an agreement between a judge and the Commission on Judicial Qualifications in which the judge resigned from office in return for dismissal of the Commission’s recommendation that he be removed for considering and granting an ex parte request for temporary custody of a child without giving prior notice to the child’s mother or following the procedural requirements for granting such a petition and issuing 2 orders to the county auditor ordering that the law firm representing him be paid out of the county general fund.  In the Matter of Kern, 774 N.E.2d 878 (Indiana 2002).

Private dispositions

The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission recently disclosed its letter cautioning a judge about her treatment of a cancer patient who had been cited for failing to keep his property free of weeds, trees, or other nuisance vegetation, although it dismissed the complaint against the judge.  Letter to Krot (Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission July 5, 2022).  The letter is marked “personal and confidential,” and under the Commission’s rules, it ordinarily would not be public, but the Commission’s post includes her name because the judge waived her right to confidentiality “in recognition of the public interest in this incident,” which received extensive, national media coverage.  In the letter, the Commission notes that the judge had self-reported her conduct although she was not required to do so and had “candidly acknowledged that [her] tone and words . . . were neither dignified nor courteous and were completely inappropriate.” 

On January 10, 2022, Burhan Chowdhury appeared before the judge on Zoom in response to a ticket for a code violation; his son also appeared.  A picture shared on the screen showed overgrown vegetation around a garage in an alley.  During the hearing, Chowdhury told the judge that he had cancer, was very old and weak, and could not look after “these things.”  

The judge responded that Chowdhury should be ashamed of himself and that she would give him jail time if she could.  She fined him $100 and told him to get the area cleaned up, as its appearance was “totally inappropriate.”  When Chowdhury’s son asked if the fine was forgivable, explaining that his father had been ill and that the area had been cleaned prior to the hearing, the judge “asked whether he had seen the photo of the area, then stated in a raised voice that it was shameful and that the neighbors should not have to view it, adding that ‘if you come back here — with your yard looking like that, you’re going to jail.’”  The Commission noted that the “threat was particularly inappropriate, as a jail sentence is not an option for a civil infraction.” 

The Commission’s letter stated that the judge’s reaction may have been due in part to her disappointment that many local homeowners have neglected their property, her unusually heavy docket that day, and her frustration that the city’s lag in using screen share was slowing the day’s proceedings.  The Commission also acknowledged that the judge had learned that she had a significant health issue shortly before the hearing.

However, the Commission cautioned that “a judge cannot allow circumstances, such as those you faced when the Chowdhurys were before you, unduly to influence the way they treat litigants,” warning her “to adhere to the letter and spirit of these canons in the future . . . .”  The Commission explained to the judge:  “You deprived Mr. Chowdhury of his right to provide his explanation for the overgrown vegetation; whether intended by you or not, your interaction caused him humiliation; and you reacted with excessive anger toward an individual appearing before you for the first time, and doing so for a minor infraction.”

The Commission commended the judge for acknowledging her error, taking responsibility without attempting to excuse her conduct, and publicly apologizing, and accepted that her treatment of the Chowdhurys was not racist or otherwise biased.  Noting that she had an unblemished discipline history, the Commission stated that it was confident that her conduct at the hearing was an “aberration” and that there is “no risk of repetition” but informed the judge that it could consider the incident “in the event of future misconduct.”

* * *

If an investigation produces some evidence of misconduct, but the misconduct is relatively minor, most judicial conduct commissions can resolve a complaint about a judge with a private sanction or confidential informal disposition.  Depending on the state, private dispositions are called:

  • Private censures, reprimands, admonitions, or warnings;
  • Letters of admonition, counsel, caution, advice, or correction;
  • Dismissals with caution, admonition, explanation, concern, or warning; or
  • Orders of additional education, cease and desist orders, or adjustments.

Several judicial conduct commissions summarize their private dispositions in their annual reports.  The commissions with this practice include:  the California Commission on Judicial Performance, the Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline, the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards, the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board, and the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission.  The California Commission explains that it provides synopses of private admonishments and advisory letters “to educate judges and the public, and to assist judges in avoiding inappropriate conduct;” it acknowledges that because “certain details of the cases have been omitted or obscured” to maintain confidentiality, the summaries are “less informative than they otherwise might be” but notes its belief that “it is better to describe the conduct in abbreviated form than to omit the summaries altogether.”  Summaries of private discipline since 1998 are available on the Commission’s website.

In addition, several commissions post on their websites redacted or abridged versions of their private dispositions when they are issued.  For example, as reflected on their websites, so far in 2022, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct has issued private admonitions or warnings to and/or ordered additional education for 18 judges.  and the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct has dismissed with warning or advisory letters complaints against 8 judges filed in 2021.

Throwback Thursday

25 years ago this month:

  • Pursuant to the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Performance, a special tribunal publicly censured a justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court who had entered a nolo contendere plea to the charge of DUI, been fined $800, and sentenced to 48 hours in jail with the jail time suspended.  Commission on Judicial Performance v. McRae, 700 So. 2d 1331 (Mississippi 1997).

Reviews, blurbs, and prefaces

Advisory opinions on the issue allow a judge to write a book review but prohibit a judge from allowing excerpts from a positive review to be used to promote the book and from writing a blurb solely for marketing purposes.

For example, the California Supreme Court Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions recently advised that, when the primary purpose “is to engage in educational discourse related to the law, the legal system, or the administration of justice,” a judicial officer “may review, critique, or comment on legal education books in a legal publication” and include their title in the review.  California Supreme Court Committee Advisory Opinion 2022-48. The opinion noted that the code “generally permits and encourages judges to engage in educational activities, particularly those concerning the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice” but also prohibits using judicial prestige to advance others’ interests.  To “harmoniz[e]” those provisions, it explained:

Discussions regarding legal education books or writings in legal publications, such as legal periodicals or newsletters, have important educational value and contribute to the improvement of the law and legal system. . . .  While the committee agrees that judges may not promote others’ written works, review or critique of legal works is an educational exercise and consistent with the canons.  Although a positive review or discussion may incidentally lead to increased sales, the primary purpose of such discussions is educational rather than promotional.

The opinion cautioned that the substance of the review “must otherwise comply with the canons; for example, the judicial officer must not engage in improper political commentary or undermine the integrity or impartiality of the judiciary.”

Moreover, the committee advised that a judicial officer who has not contributed to a book may not provide a written endorsement that includes their title to be used on the book cover because the primary purpose of such an endorsement is to allow the publisher to “leverage” the judicial title to market the publication.  It explained:

Authors and publishers typically seek written endorsements from high-profile or prestigious individuals, sometimes called “book blurbs,” for the placement on a book cover to market and promote the book for sale.  An endorsement from a well-known judge, for example, might suggest to would-be readers that a law-related book is particularly interesting or useful, leading to increased sales.  When a judicial officer has not authored, co-authored, or contributed to the book, the primary purpose of such an endorsement is not to identify a contributor by judicial title or engage in an educational exercise, but rather to use the endorsing judicial officer’s title to promote sales.

Other opinions reflect a similar distinction.

  • A judge may write a review of a book about an historical event for a legal periodical as an academic exercise and not for commercial purposes but may not for marketing purposes write a testimonial regarding the value of a bar publication or write commentary to be included on a book jacket.  California Judges Association Advisory Opinion 65 (2012).
  • A judge may not write a testimonial/endorsement for a legal practice guide published by a non-profit, bar-related legal organization.  Connecticut Informal Advisory Opinion 2010-35.
  • A judge may not write comments about how an expert witness’s book would contribute to the legal profession from a judge’s perspective to be included in the book and potentially used in advertisements.  Florida Advisory Opinion 2021-17.
  • A judge may not write an appraisal intended to promote the sales of a book but may write a book review in a journal or newspaper intended “to inform the legal community or the general public of a new contribution to the legal or general literature,” even if the publisher uses excerpts from the review to promote sales and even if the newspaper or journal compensates the judge for the review.  Illinois Advisory Opinion 1994-15.
  • A judge may write book reviews for compensation for an out-of-state newspaper when they were asked because of their prior journalism experience, not because they are currently a judge, and they would not be identified as a judge in the reviews.  Kansas Advisory Opinion 186 (2020).
  • A judge may write a review of several books on methamphetamine addiction.  Nevada Advisory Opinion JE2008-8.
  • A judge may review a legal textbook and retain the reviewed book in their personal library.  New York Advisory Opinion 2021-117.
  • A judge may write and post a review of a friend’s novel online without mentioning their judicial position provided the purpose is not to promote the book’s sale and the judge does authorize use of the review on the book jacket or elsewhere to promote sales.  New York Advisory Opinion 2020-85.
  • A judge may not provide an endorsement of a friend’s non-fiction book that would appear on the cover and identify them as a New York judge even if their name is not used.  New York Advisory Opinion 2012-26.
  • A judge may not provide a quote to be included on the inside leaf of a book a friend has written about auditing fraud even if their title will not be mentioned and the only compensation is a complimentary copy of the book.  New York Advisory Opinion 2011-54.
  • A judge may submit to the New York Law Journal a review of a book authored by a clergy member at their house of worship but should not permit the author or publisher to use any portion of the review to promote the book’s sale.  New York Advisory Opinion 2006-114.
  • A judge may write a review of a novel for a local legal newspaper but should not permit the author or publisher to use part of the review to promote the book’s sale and should inform the newspaper, in writing, that the review is being provided on the understanding that no portion can be used for promotions.  New York Advisory Opinion 2005-28.
  • A judge may review a legal publication but should not prepare a testimonial that would be included in a marketing brochure or provide a quote about a book for the book jacket.  New York Advisory Opinion 1997-133.
  • A judge may not author a quote about a book involving legal issues solely for use on the book jacket but may write a book review for publication in the New York Law Journal or elsewhere.  New York Advisory Opinion 1993-14.
  • A judge may not write a review of a book on a legal subject when the publisher has stated that it will use some of the judge’s comments to promote sales.  Pennsylvania Informal Advisory Opinion 11/4/03.
  • A judge may write a letter on judicial letterhead at the request of a for-profit publisher to be included in a booklet about substance abuse as long as it cannot be interpreted as an endorsement of the booklet and does not impact the appearance of the judge’s impartiality in the trial of related matters.  Texas Advisory Opinion 192 (1996).
  • A judge may write book reviews that are “bona fide contributions addressing the substance” of the book and that do not “exploit or detract from the dignity of the office” but “should undertake reasonable efforts to guard against the subsequent use” of a review in promotional materials that may exploit the prestige of the office.  U.S. Advisory Opinion 114 (2014).

Prefaces

With some caveats, judicial ethics advisory committees allow judges to write forewords, prologues, or prefaces for books if they will not receive compensation.

In giving that permission, several committees remind judges to retain editorial control over the content of what they write and the right to review any biographical information used.  See Connecticut Advisory Opinion 2010-15; Florida Advisory Opinion 2020-11. For example, the Maryland committee advised that a judge who is writing an introduction to a book should take reasonable steps to ensure that the publisher does not exploit the prestige of their judicial office in marketing of the book, explaining that, in the context of a book published by a non-profit entity such as a bar association, the judge should ask “the publisher to consult with the [judge] before mentioning [their] name or position in any marketing efforts.”  Maryland Advisory Opinion Request 1980-7.

Some of the opinions warn the judge that a foreword they write should not identify them as a judge.  See Florida Advisory Opinion 2020-11.  Some note that the judge did not plan to identify their judicial status in the foreword, suggesting the answer may be different if the preface refers to their office.  See Connecticut Advisory Opinion 2010-15; Florida Advisory Opinion 2020-11.  Other opinions do not address the issue.

Some opinions remind the judge to review the entire book and determine whether authoring a foreword will cast doubt on their impartiality or reflect a predisposition regarding particular cases, issues, parties, or witnesses.  Connecticut Advisory Opinion 2010-15; Florida Advisory Opinion 2020-11See also Ohio Advisory Opinion 1987-8.  Similarly, the Massachusetts committee advised that a judge should be careful to ensure that nothing they write in the foreword or any way they associate themself with anything the author writes casts doubts on their capacity to make impartial decisions.  Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 1993-2.

The opinions state:

  • A judge may author a foreword to a book written by a police officer on child safety and the Internet but, if the author appears as a party or witness before the judge or the judge presides over a case about the subject of the book, the judge should disclose the connection and consider recusal at a party’s request based on “the nature of the proceeding or docket, whether reference to or reliance upon the book is foreseeable, whether the Judicial Official is the sole decision maker (i.e. whether the matter is to the court or a jury) and whether self-represented parties or lawyers are involved.”  Connecticut Advisory Opinion 2010-15.
  • A judge may write the foreword to a self-published memoir written by a family member.  Florida Advisory Opinion 2020-11.
  • A judge may write the preface to a book about the history of the county.  Florida Advisory Opinion 1977-5.
  • A judge may provide an introduction to a book on a specific area of state law published by the Maryland State Bar Association as part of its continuing legal education program, but different considerations may apply to works published by for-profit entities.  Maryland Advisory Opinion Request 2013-26.
  • A judge may write an introduction recommending a book about the prevention and treatment of alcoholism to judges and other professionals.  Maryland Advisory Opinion Request 1980-7.
  • A probate and family court judge may write a foreword for a book on divorce.  Massachusetts Advisory Opinion 1993-2.
  • A judge may write a foreword for a book on the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.  Ohio Advisory Opinion 1987–8.
  • A judge may write forewords for books that are “bona fide contributions addressing the substance of the book” but should make reasonable efforts to prohibit its use in promotional materials.  U.S. Advisory Opinion 114 (2014).

The only outlier is a New York advisory opinion stating that a judge should not write a foreword to a law book dealing with the court over which the judge presides when the book is a commercial publication intended to earn a profit for the publisher and author.  New York Advisory Opinion 1997-1.  The committee reasoned:

[T]here is a clear and overt nexus between the writing that is sought and the private interests of the publisher and author.  For, in writing such a Foreword, the judge could readily be perceived as endorsing the publication and providing it with a judicial stamp of approval.  Indeed, that perception of a judicial imprimatur is heightened considerably in this instance, since the subject matter of the book is the workings of the very court over which the judge presides and about which the judge has special knowledge and expertise.

Thus, it is not only the prestige of judicial office that is involved in this instance but the prestige of the particular judicial office held by the inquirer.