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.”
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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.