Bad faith de-escalation

Judicial conduct commissions and supreme courts do not usually second-guess a judge’s decision to hold someone in contempt, but there are exceptions to that rule, and a judge was recently censured for having a mother involved in a visitation dispute handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom without an opportunity to be heard or any contemptuous behavior in the courtroom.  In re Foster (North Carolina Supreme Court September 27, 2019).  The North Carolina Supreme Court adopted the findings of the Judicial Standards Commission, which were based on a stipulation and agreement for a stated disposition.

The judge presided over a hearing to determine whether the mother of 15-year-old twin sons should be held in contempt after the twins, who reside with their mother, refused to visit their father during the winter holiday.  The mother’s counsel objected because the mother had not received sufficient notice of the hearing.  The judge acknowledged the objection but ordered the mother and the twins to appear in court within 30 minutes, stating:  “I’m not saying that we’re going through with the hearing, but you need to call your client and tell her to get here because I have a few choice words that I need to say to her . . . .”  The judge added that “the boys need to come . . . so that they can hear that their mother can go to jail for their behavior” and “if a child wants their parent to go to jail, I got a problem with that as well.”

When they arrived, the judge asked the 2 boys whether they understood that their mother could be incarcerated if they continued to resist visitation with their father.  After the boys told the judge that they would rather have their mother go to jail than visit with their father, the judge stated:  “my children would never allow me to go to jail for any reason whatsoever . . .  I’m appalled because my children respect me so much they would never allow that to happen.”  After the boys said that they understood the consequences of their refusal, the judge ordered the bailiff to handcuff their mother and place her in a holding cell.  The mother’s counsel objected because the judge had not held a contempt hearing or given his client an opportunity to be heard.  Nevertheless, the judge instructed the bailiff to take the mother out of the courtroom.

After the mother was removed, the judge told the twins that she was “appalled” at their behavior and that they should be “ashamed” for allowing their mother to go to jail.  The judge also shared personal stories about being a parent and “disturbing cases she had presided over where children had suffered unfortunate outcomes.”  She asked the twins whether it made more sense to spend 6 days visiting their father as originally ordered, or 60 days with him while their mother was incarcerated.  The boys relented and agreed to visit their father.

The judge had the mother brought back into the courtroom and then said “as far as your full-blown hearing, it is going to be continued.  You two need to pick a date because I do not believe that you [had] enough time to truly prepare.”  Both parties thanked the judge for trying to resolve the boys’ refusal to visit with their father.

The judge believed that her actions “were appropriate to deescalate an unfortunate situation and resolve the visitation issues without further involving the Court.”  Her conduct in the case reflected her practice of placing litigants in temporary custody for “a short ‘cooling-off period’ without an opportunity to be heard,” which she had found successful in getting litigants to comply with her directives.

The Commission emphasized that it was not reviewing the legal issue whether the judge may have properly held the mother in contempt.  The Commission noted that the judge had specifically intended to avoid a “full-blown hearing,” which she admitted she could not hold because of inadequate notice.  The Court concluded that the judge’s actions were “not a mere ‘error of judgment or mere lack of diligence’” but intentional and part a pattern.

The judge argued that she had acted “with benevolent motives to ‘deescalate an unfortunate situation and resolve the visitation issues without further involving the Court.’”  However, the Commission stated that “‘bad faith’ includes ‘any knowing misuse of the office, whatever the motive,’” and concluded that the judge “acted in bad faith because she had ‘[a] specific intent to use the powers of the judicial office to accomplish a purpose which the judge knew or should have known was beyond the legitimate exercise of [her] authority.’”