Judicial conduct related to the COVID-19 pandemic has recently resulted in 1 private admonishment and 2 public sanctions.
The Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards privately admonished a judge who, before “a hearing by Zoom, . . . not realizing others had joined the meeting, used a derogatory word to refer to a party. The comment was overheard by others at the Zoom hearing, including the party’s attorney. The judge showed remorse, immediately apologized, and self-reported his conduct to the Board.”
The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly admonished a judge for stating 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).
The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded a judge for failing 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 granting 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).
On the morning of April 28, 2021, the attorney for the defendant in a scheduled civil traffic hearing experienced COVID-19 symptoms and filed an emergency motion to continue the hearing. The attorney’s staff also informed the court’s staff, and the court staff assured them that the motion to continue would be given to the hearing officer scheduled to preside over the hearing.
The judge denied the motion to continue, and a default judgment was entered against the defendant. The court file “clearly showed” that the defendant’s presence was waived for that hearing. The defendant’s attorney filed a motion to reconsider/set-aside, but the judge also denied that motion.
The Commission found that the judge’s “failure to liberally grant a continuance or make arrangements to allow the attorney to appear telephonically detrimentally affected the Complainant through the default judgment entered and fine imposed.” The Commission concluded that, in addition to violating the code of judicial conduct, the judge had violated administrative orders issued by the Arizona Supreme Court, providing, for example, that “Judicial officers shall liberally grant continuances and make accommodations, if necessary and possible, for attorneys, parties, victims, witnesses, jurors, and others with business before the courts who are at a high risk of illness from COVID-19 or who report any COVID-19 diagnosis, symptoms, or exposure notification by public health authorities.”
9 other judges have previously been publicly sanctioned for conduct related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 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 effect. In the Matter Concerning Connolly, Decision and order (California Commission on Judicial Performance April 2, 2021) (admonishment for this and other misconduct).
- Judge failed to wear a protective face covering at all times while on court premises as required by a state supreme court order and asked a clerk if they minded if he did not wear a mask; and, after the court began conducting telephonic hearings due to the pandemic, issued bench warrants when 11 defendants failed to call the court on their appearance date without determining if the defendants had been properly summonsed. In the Matter of Guthrie, Order (New Mexico Supreme Court October 29, 2021) (30-day suspension without pay for this and other misconduct).
- 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) (reprimand).
- 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 declined to determine who was attempting to appear at the end of a calendar via Zoom. In re Burchett, Stipulation, agreement, and order (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).