The Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Judicial Conduct Commission removing a judge from office for (1) inserting herself into her son’s criminal cases and attempting to influence the outcome of the cases in text messages, meetings, and calls with the county attorney and the judge presiding in the cases; (2) deleting material from her son’s social media accounts after he had been arrested and taken into custody; (3) using her position to arrange semi-private meetings with her son in the jailer’s office, bringing him drinks and food contrary to jail policy, and visiting him outside of normal visiting hours; (4) threatening to fine case workers and supervisors for late reports; (5) removing or threatening to remove attorneys from her guardian ad litem list for arbitrary reasons; (6) having her staff conduct drug tests; (7) failing to be candid with the Commission; and (8) retaining, paying, and directing her son’s attorney, who actively practiced law in her courtroom and regularly received guardian ad litem appointments from her; presiding over cases in which her staff attorney’s brother represented a party; and appointing an attorney with her husband’s law firm as a guardian ad litem. Gordon v. Judicial Conduct Commission (Kentucky Supreme Court October 20, 2022).). The Court concluded that removal was warranted by “the pattern and extent” of the judge’s misconduct.
From June 2017 through July 2021, the judge’s adult son Dalton was charged with crimes in several cases in which the judge was the complaining witness or victim, thus placing her, the Court stated, “in the difficult position of concurrently being a parent, victim, and judge in the same county . . . .”
During the hearing, the Commission had listened to recordings of calls between the judge and Dalton while he was incarcerated and found that the calls were “damning,” establishing and confirming much of her misconduct. “Most shocking,” the Commission stated, was the judge’s “testimony (and argument) that she did not think anyone would ever hear or listen to the calls, the implication being she would not have said the things she said, if she had known anyone would hear them.”
The Court concluded that “the influence Judge Gordon exerted in her son’s case is undeniable,” noting that although the Commission “heard only a few of the hundreds of calls” recorded between the judge and her son while he was in jail “enough were played to prove the allegations.”
For example, in one call, the judge told her son that she had worked out a plan and warned him to leave it up to her. She said that she had sent a text message to the presiding judge and talked to the county attorney about getting him into a treatment program. In another call, the judge told Dalton that the county attorney was trying to take one of his cases out of her hands and that she would schedule an in-person meeting with his attorney, Clay Wilkey.
During another phone call, the judge told Dalton that she had sent the county attorney and Wilkey a proposal for resolving Dalton’s criminal charges but found out that the county attorney had already sent Wilkey a plea offer. On the same call, the judge stated that she had told the county attorney she wanted to make the decisions for her family and her house.
The judge’s ex parte text messages with the county attorney about Dalton’s cases were admitted as evidence during the Commission hearing. For example, over the course of 12 hours on one day, the judge and the county attorney exchanged 80 text messages, most involving the judge “pushing for information and requesting certain outcomes.” For example, the judge messaged the county attorney requesting that Dalton receive deferred prosecution and enter an agreement to get treatment, to which the county attorney responded, “Yes I think I can make that happen.” The judge asked the county attorney to “please please please get things worked out today for Dalton to serve some time as a consequence.” She also told the county attorney that “[w]e have to get this done quickly…. He’s going to blow it and risk losing his ability to go back to FOS if we don’t get something done.” (“FOS” stands for Friends of Sinners, a residential substance abuse program.)
In a hearing in one of Dalton’s cases, the judge who was presiding told Dalton that he had spoken with Judge Gordon for at least 45 minutes and got a “heads up” about Dalton, his history, and struggles.
Emphasizing that “the operative facts are that she directly inserted herself into Dalton’s cases and attempted to influence the outcome,” the Court stated that “the outcome or actions Judge Gordon requested are immaterial” and it was “of no consequence” that she was requesting Dalton that be detained or required to attend treatment, rather than “requesting that he receive preferential treatment or be pardoned for his actions.” The Court acknowledged that the judge had often been confronted with difficult, unplanned, and unpredictable situations that directly impacted her, her son, and her family. However, it emphasized, “judges, are responsible for exercising sound judgment even when confronted with difficult issues, especially issues that involve loved ones. . . . Ultimately, Judge Gordon made many decisions over a span of several years, some precipitous and some seemingly more carefully considered, that resulted in numerous and separate violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.”