Uncomfortable, angry, and hurt

Based on a stipulation and the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Discipline, the Colorado Supreme Court accepted the resignation of a judge and publicly censured her for (1) using the N-word in a conversation with a Black staff member; (2) expressing her views about criminal justice, police brutality, race, and racial bias while wearing her robe in the courthouse and on the bench; (3) referring to a judicial colleague in derogatory terms; and (4) using court staff for personal tasks.  In the Matter of Chase, Order (Colorado Supreme Court April 16, 2021). 

In late January or early February 2020, the judge drove a family court facilitator and the judge’s law clerk in her car to and from a safe baby program.  The judge is White; the family court facilitator is Black.  On the way back from the program, the judge asked the family court facilitator why Black people can use the N-word but White people cannot and whether it was different if the N-word is said with an “er” or an “a” at the end.  During the conversation, the judge used the full N-word a number of times.  The family court facilitator was uncomfortable, angry, and hurt by the conversation but could not leave the car or the conversation and did not express her emotions because she feared retaliation by the judge.  She explained that the judge’s use of the full N-word was “like a stab through my heart each time.”  

The judge maintained that she did not intend any racial animus, but acknowledged that her statements violated the code of judicial conduct.  The Commission concluded that, “although not directed at any person, saying the N-word has a significant negative effect on the public’s confidence in integrity of and respect for the judiciary.”

In early February 2020, the judge was on the bench, wearing her robe, during a break in court proceedings.  There were 2 or 3 other people in the courtroom.  2 employees in the courtroom were Black.  When someone brought up watching the Super Bowl, the judge stated, from the bench, that she would be boycotting the Super Bowl because she objected to the NFL players who were kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality against Black people.

On the Monday in May 2020 after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota and after there were Black Lives Matter protests in Denver, 2 Black court employees were in the judge’s courtroom.  One of them asked the other if they had seen the George Floyd protests.  The judge, while wearing her robe and sitting on the bench, told the employees some of her opinions regarding racial justice issues and asked questions about the Black Lives Matter movement.  The employee tried to explain the Black Lives Matter movement; the judge stated that she believes all lives matter.  The judge also stated that the conduct of the police officers in the George Floyd matter should be investigated.

In the first half of 2020, the judge told her clerk she was meeting with another judge.  When she returned from the meeting, the clerk asked how it went, and Judge Chase called the other judge a “f****** b****.”

In early 2020, the judge directed her law clerk to do some legal research related to a personal family legal issue that was unrelated to the judge’s official case load.

In August 2020, the judge had a medical episode at the courthouse.  After courtroom deputies came to her aid, the judge declined an ambulance.  She then asked one of the court employees to drive her to the emergency room.  The judge also asked the court employee to stay with her at the hospital.  The employee missed a half day of work to accommodate the judge.

Throughout 2020, the judge forwarded personal emails to her clerk and asked her clerk to edit or rewrite the emails to read better before the judge sent them.

The judge repeatedly and discourteously discussed personal and family matters with staff and other employees in office work areas and as part of court business.

Judicial discipline during a pandemic

The number of public state judicial discipline cases in 2020 — 127 — was about the same number as 2019 even though, like everyone everywhere, judicial conduct commissions had to adjust their operations at short notice during the COVID-19 pandemic.  As commissions begin to release their annual reports for 2020, several have described the effects of the pandemic on their work.

In its annual report for its most recent fiscal year (September 2019 through August 2020), the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct describes how COVID-19 “frustrated normal operations, as it has for other state agencies,” but “caused the Commission to employ new and innovative practices.”  It explains:

Prior to early 2020, very little remote work was performed by Commission staff; however, since the Governor’s emergency order, Commission staff has effectively worked remotely.  The Commission commenced conducting hybrid meetings allowing remote or in-person appearances by Commissioners, staff and judges.  This was accomplished by utilizing Zoom technology provided by the Office of Court Administration while holding meetings around the State – thus far, in West, Central and North Texas.

The report states that “despite the challenges,” the Commission “resolved 1,240 cases which neared the prior ten-year average disposition rate of 1,260.”  (The Commission did note that it had disposed of approximately 27% fewer cases than in fiscal year 2019 because its ability to access information and investigate complaints was “severely limited” “for a significant, extended time” by a “devastating ransomware attack” suffered by the Commission’s information technology provider, the Texas Office of Court Administration.”)

The 2020 annual report of the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct describes how the pandemic posed “unprecedented challenges” for the Commission “as it did throughout state government and, indeed, the nation and world.”  It explains the “‘virtual’ administration of the agency” that began in March.

Since then, nearly all agency business has been conducted electronically by staff operating in remote locations.  Commission meetings, staff meetings, investigative interviews, depositions and disciplinary hearings have proceeded via remote video platforms.  Documents have been disseminated and received by email as well as postal or courier services.  Faxes transmitted to the office over telephone lines have been automatically digitized and rerouted to an electronic email in-box.  As a result of these and other adjustments to business-as-usual, the Commission was able to keep abreast of its constitutional responsibilities. . . .

Although it expresses the hope for “a return to its offices in the fall of 2021,” the Commission predicts that “the innovative remote/electronic/operational adaptations necessitated by the pandemic will likely remain part of the ‘new normal’ in the post-Covid era.”

The Commission reports that its 24 public dispositions in 2020 were “the most in any year since 2009.”  The Commission also notes, however, that it received fewer new complaints in 2020 – 1504 compared to 1944 in 2019 — “in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, which caused the courts to close or operate in a limited manner throughout most of 2020.” 

The introduction to the 2020 annual report of the California Commission on Judicial Performance states.

The year 2020 has been extraordinary in many ways.  In the 60 years since the Commission was created, we have not seen the challenges and difficulties that have impacted everyone during this trying time.  The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down and has unfortunately led to tragic consequences for many.  But, in this difficult time, people have risen to the occasion to make sure we can continue to function as a society.  This was the case here at the Commission.  The employees at the Commission have stepped up to put in long hours, working remotely from home, not having the resources that they would normally have, to ensure that the functions and goals of the Commission continue to be met.  The constitutional mandate of the Commission on Judicial Performance is to protect the public.  No one here at the Commission has lost sight of this mandate during these trying times.

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Beginning in March 2020, the Commission conducted all of our regularly scheduled meetings remotely, and we were able to consider each and every complaint filed.  This allowed us to handle matters as they came in and not get backlogged, despite the statewide shutdown.  During these meetings, we continued to have appearances by judges who wanted to be heard regarding their tentative discipline.  With the cooperation of the California Supreme Court, letting us use its courtroom, we were also able to conduct a public formal proceedings hearing with several Commission members appearing in person, as well as the judicial officer, his attorney, and the examiner who prosecuted the case (while properly socially distancing and wearing masks).  The other members of the Commission were able to appear and participate remotely, and members of the public were able to view the hearing via livestream.

Not a matter of management style

The North Carolina Supreme Court found that a court of appeals judge had committed willful misconduct by allowing his executive assistant/law clerk, who was a close friend, to create a toxic work environment for the female law clerks in his chambers.  In re Inquiry Concerning Murphy, 852 S.E.2d 599 (North Carolina 2020).

After he became a judge in January 2017, the judge hired his close, personal friend from high school, Ben Tuite, to serve as his executive assistant and permanent third law clerk.  The judge gave Tuite “express and implied authority to supervise and manage the term law clerks and the operations of his chambers.”  The judge hired Clark Cooper and Lauren Suber as his term law clerks.  In March 2017, after Cooper suddenly resigned, the judge hired Mary Scruggs.  After Suber completed her clerkship in August 2017, she was replaced by Chelsey Maywalt. 

The Judicial Standards Commission found that Tuite “regularly used profanity during the workday, belittled others,” “used fear and intimidation while interacting with and supervising the law clerks,” “engaged in profane, violent and angry outbursts in the office,” and made “lewd or sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace.”  For example:

  • Tuite frequently used the word “f**k” in the workplace.
  • Tuite referred to the female law clerks more than once as “b***h” or “b***hing.” 
  • Tuite told Suber and Scruggs on separate occasions early in their clerkships that “he likes to have relationships with female co-workers but that they should not misconstrue his efforts to spend time with them.”
  • Tuite told Suber that “he would like to see her in a wife beater’ tank top and shorts on a cold day” and that he “was married but not blind.”
  • While reviewing a law clerk application with the judge, Suber, and Scruggs, Tuite repeated “derogatory and belittling online comments” that called the female applicant’s breasts “fun bags.”
  • On one occasion, Tuite, “after being told of a problem with his work product, yelled ‘f**k’ loud enough for everyone in the judge’s] chambers, including [the judge] who was in his office with the door open, to hear, and slammed his fist on a table hard enough to activate a panic alarm that was attached to that table.”
  • On another occasion, during a meeting, Tuite, in the judge’s presence, got angry at Maywalt, slammed his fist on his chair, said, “Goddamn it, Chelsey,” and told her to shut her mouth and that “her opinion did not f**king matter.”

The judge observed some of Tuite’s conduct, and the law clerks told him about other incidents, but he failed to take any action.  The female clerks “were miserable, felt unsafe and uncomfortable working in [the judge’s] chambers and did not trust [the judge] to accurately portray their reports of workplace misconduct to others or to protect their well-being.”  2 of the clerks resigned before their terms were over; one did not accept the judge’s offer to extend her term. 

Another judge reported his concerns about the environment in Judge Murphy’s chambers to the chief judge.  In subsequent meetings with and emails to the Commission and the human relations department, the judge did not disclose the law clerks’ complaints about Tuite or any of the incidents he had observed and “downplayed, minimized, and mischaracterized” Tuite’s actions.  “The judge dismissed the female clerks’ concerns as complaints about “‘how things are handled’ inside and outside of chambers.”  The judge also regularly assured Tuite and indicated to others that Tuite’s employment at the court of appeals would continue.  However, after a judicial colleague advised him to ensure that “his female law clerks were not uncomfortable” and after learning that Scruggs was interviewing for another position, the judge asked Tuite to resign, which he did in January 2018.

Finding that he had been “influenced by his close personal friendship with and loyalty towards Mr. Tuite,” the Commission concluded that, by failing to act, the judge condoned “Tuite’s workplace misconduct and therefore . . . contributed to and enabled a toxic work environment.”  The Court adopted the findings of the Commission.

The Court rejected the judge’s argument that he could not be held accountable for others’ actions; it noted that the code of judicial conduct specifically states that a judge should require “dignified and courteous’ behavior of his staff” and require “staff and court officials subject to the judge’s direction and control to observe the standards of fidelity and diligence that apply to the judge.”  The Court concluded:

The incidents for which respondent was present . . . were sufficient to warrant corrective action with regard to Mr. Tuite.  Instead, respondent continued to turn a blind eye.  This shortcoming is not, as [the judge] contends, simply a matter of managerial style.  Rather, it is a failure to recognize the gravity of Mr. Tuite’s sexually explicit language and profane and suggestive language directed toward [the judge’s] law clerks and the impact on the law clerks of such unprofessional behavior.

Multiple acts of misconduct aggravated by a failure to acknowledge fault or show remorse and by a lack of candor often result in a judge’s removal or suspension without pay in judicial discipline cases.

However, the North Carolina Supreme Court only publicly censured Judge Murphy without explanation except the conclusion that his conduct “did not rise to the level of incurring suspension or removal as contemplated in other decisions of this Court.”  The Court did not cite its other decisions, but since 2008, it has removed 2 judges and suspended 2 judges without pay, in addition to imposing several censures and reprimands.  See In re Chapman, 819 S.E.2d 346 (North Carolina 2018) (30-day suspension without pay for failing to issue a ruling for more than 5 years on a motion for permanent child support); In re Hartsfield, 722 S.E.2d 496 (North Carolina 2012) (based on stipulated facts, 75-day suspension without pay for ticket-fixing); In re Belk, 691 S.E.2d 685 (North Carolina 2010) (removal of former judge for remaining on the board of directors of a corporation and making intentional misrepresentations during the Commission investigation); In re Badgett, 666 S.E.2d 743 (North Carolina 2008) (removal of judge for mishandling a domestic violence protective order case and, during the investigation, making untruthful, deceptive, and inconsistent statements to a State Bureau of Investigation agent and attempting to influence the recollections of a deputy clerk and the plaintiff’s attorney; the judge had been censured and suspended earlier in the year for unrelated misconduct).

Judicial rides

Recently, based on an agreed statement of facts and recommendation, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly censured a non-lawyer judge for giving a defendant a ride home after his arraignment and then presiding over his case, in addition to other misconduct.  In the Matter of Parker, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct August 13, 2020). 

The judge released E.B. after arraigning him on grand larceny, a felony.  Mr. B. appeared without counsel, and no one from the district attorney’s office was present.  During the arraignment, Mr. B. told the judge that he was a professional musician.  After the arraignment, the judge engaged Mr. B. in a conversation about music and the musicians with whom Mr. B. had performed.  The judge then offered to give Mr. B. a ride home, which Mr. B. accepted.  The judge drove Mr. B. to his residence, and they talked throughout the car ride, which lasted approximately 15 minutes.

A week later, Mr. B. appeared without counsel before the judge.  At the prosecutor’s recommendation, the charge against Mr. B. was reduced, and the judge granted an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.  The judge did not disclose to the prosecutor that he had given Mr. B. a ride home or offer to recuse himself from the case.

During the Commission’s investigation, Mr. B. stated that he and the judge did not discuss his case during the car ride although he could not recall what they did discuss.  In his sworn testimony, the judge averred that they only discussed music and did not discuss Mr. B.’s case.

The Commission found:

Respondent had an extreme lapse in judgment when he offered and then gave a defendant a ride home after conducting the defendant’s arraignment in the absence of a prosecutor and releasing him on his own recognizance.  Such extra-judicial conduct involving a defendant whose case is pending in respondent’s court is highly improper.

The Commission found that the judge’s misconduct was compounded when he disposed of Mr. B.’s case a week after giving him a ride, explaining that “a reasonable person might conclude that giving the defendant a ride home indicated that respondent could not be impartial when it came to adjudicating the defendant’s case.”

This was not the first time a New York judge had been sanctioned based on a car ride.  In In the Matter of Burke, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct (April 21, 2014), the Commission publicly censured a judge for riding in a police car with a defendant after arraigning him, recommending that the defendant retain the judge’s business partner as his attorney, giving him legal advice, and presiding over his case, in addition to other misconduct.

The judge arraigned Michael Matus on driving while intoxicated charges, suspended his license, and released him on his own recognizance.  During the arraignment, the judge told Matus that he could apply to the court for a hardship driver’s license.

After the arraignment, the judge, who had left his vehicle at a service station, asked the police for a ride home.  The judge was driven home in the police car transporting Matus.  The judge sat in the front seat with an officer; Matus was in the back seat.  During the ride, the judge told Matus that he could no longer hear Matus’s case because he was riding in the police car with him.  Matus told the judge that the suspension of his license would cause extreme hardship because he had to drive his wife to New York City for cancer treatments.  The judge again told Matus that he could apply for a hardship license.  When Matus told the judge that he did not know any attorneys, the judge suggested Tina Piette with whom the judge owned 2 investment real estate properties.  Matus met with and retained Piette the next day.

A week later, the judge granted Matus’s application for a hardship license so that he could drive to his wife’s medical appointments and to his appointments for alcohol evaluation and therapy.  The judge did not preside over any subsequent proceedings in the case.

At the discipline hearing, the judge testified that he did not disqualify himself from Matus’s application for a hardship license because he considered it to be “administrative.”  The judge acknowledged that it was improper to ride in the police car with Matus, to speak ex parte with him during the ride, and to recommend Piette as a lawyer.

The Commission concluded that, as a result of his ex parte communications with Matus during the car ride, the judge’s impartiality could reasonably be questioned when Matus filed a hardship license application — “the very subject they had discussed ex parte in the police car” – and that disqualification or, at least, disclosure of the conversation, was required “even if the application seemed routine or ministerial.”  Further, the Commission rejected the judge’s assertion that the application was an “administrative matter” because “granting such an application necessarily involves the exercise of judicial discretion.”  Finding that the judge showed poor judgment, the Commission stated:

In sum, respondent’s handling of the Matus case was inconsistent with numerous fundamental ethical principles.  Viewed objectively, the totality of his conduct — chatting with a defendant about his case during a ride in a police car, recommending that the defendant retain a lawyer with whom the judge had a business relationship, and granting the relief requested by the defendant even after respondent had indicated he could not handle the case — breached the appropriate boundaries between a judge and a litigant and thereby created “a very public appearance of impropriety” . . . , which adversely affects public confidence in the judiciary as a whole.

Based on an agreed statement of facts and joint recommendation, the New York Commission publicly censured a judge for taking a treatment court participant on an ex parte, out-of-court excursion in his personal car and speaking privately with him about personal issues.  In the Matter of Tarantino, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct March 28, 2011).

The judge was presiding over J.’s participation in the treatment court; J. was 18 years old.  During a meeting at the courthouse with a treatment court case manager, J. asked to speak to the judge.  The judge met briefly with J. in his courtroom before the lunch recess.  The case manager was not present.

During the lunch recess, the judge took J., alone, for a ride in his personal automobile to a state park approximately 16 miles from the courthouse.  The ride lasted approximately 20 minutes.  At the park, the judge and J. walked to a public wildlife observation deck, where they remained for approximately 10 minutes.  En route to, at, and after they left the deck, the judge spoke with J. about his continuing substance abuse, his mother’s death, and his need for grief counseling.  The judge then drove J. back to the courthouse.

The judge stated, under penalty of perjury, that he and J. never had any relationship other than as a judge and litigant, and that there was no untoward behavior at the park or anywhere else, at any time.  J. provided no evidence to the contrary.  The judge admitted that he made a serious error in judgment resulting from what he believed were exigent circumstances created by J.’s 2 drug overdoses within a month’s time.   The judge acknowledged that he has no training as a social worker or as a medical or mental health professional.

The Commission concluded that the judge’s “behavior, no matter how well-intentioned, was inappropriate and showed extremely poor judgment . . . .”  It explained that “the unique dynamics and relative informality of Treatment Court” did not excuse his “conduct, which overstepped the appropriate boundaries between a judge and a defendant in pending proceedings.”

Even in Treatment Court, a judge is not a social worker or therapist, but must maintain the role of a neutral and detached arbiter who at all times remains “cloaked figuratively with his black robe of office devolving upon him standards of conduct more stringent than those acceptable for others.”  Respondent’s behavior showed a serious misunderstanding of the role of a judge.

Having served as a Family Court judge for more than two years at the time, respondent should have realized that this extra-judicial meeting with the defendant — a vulnerable young man who had recently been charged with violating an order of protection for overdosing on drugs — not only would compromise respondent’s impartiality at a time when he wielded considerable power over this defendant, but would create a potential for suspicion and misunderstanding. 

* * *

There are also cases involving inappropriate rides in other states,

Adopting the findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendation of the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, based on stipulations, the Ohio Supreme Court publicly reprimanded a judge who had picked up a defendant at the police station and driven her home.  Office of Disciplinary Counsel v. Medley, 756 N.E.2d 104 (Ohio 2001).

After Tracy Grate was booked on a DUI charge, she contacted the judge by telephone.  Grate knew the judge because she had previously been a defendant in his court.  The judge picked up Grate at the police station and drove her home, but they did not discuss her case.

Shortly before Grate’s case was set for trial before the judge, Grate’s attorney and the city solicitor learned of the judge’s assistance to Grate and, believing that the judge would have to recuse, entered into plea negotiations.  Grate entered a guilty plea to reduced charges.  The judge accepted the plea agreement, sentenced Grate to 6 months in jail, suspended the jail sentence, and placed her on 5 years’ probation conditioned on attendance at a DUI school and completion of a GED program.

Stating that the fact that the judge and Grate did not discuss her case was immaterial, the Court concluded that the “sight or thought of a judge providing a ride home to a person who has just been detained for breaking the law surely gives the impression of bias on the judge’s part when it comes time to hear that case.  This act also gives an impression of impropriety. . . by making it appear that Grate would be subject to special treatment.”

The Mississippi Supreme Court suspended a judge for 90 days without pay and publicly reprimanded him for taking a criminal defendant for a ride in his car and reducing her fine at the ex parte request of a police officer.   Commission on Judicial Performance v. Boone, 60 So. 3d 172 (Mississippi 2011).

One morning, Assistant Police Chief Nolan Jones called the judge and requested his help with Christina Twaddle whom Jones was interested in cultivating as a confidential informant.  Later that morning, the judge presided over Twaddle’s trial on a charge of public drunkenness.  The judge found Twaddle guilty and imposed a $100 fine and $139 in costs.  The judge told Twaddle and her attorney that the sum must be paid no later than 5 p.m. that day.

Around noon, the judge saw Twaddle at a gasoline station and asked if she would ride with him to discuss payment of the fine.  Thinking she could work out payment arrangements, Twaddle agreed.  The judge drove Twaddle to a drugstore and asked that she meet him around 3 p.m. after he completed his afternoon docket.  They exchanged cell numbers, and the judge left.  According to phone records, the judge called Twaddle numerous times that afternoon to arrange the meeting.  Later that afternoon, the judge sua sponte reduced Twaddle’s fine by $100.

The Court stated:

Judge Boone’s actions exhibited a monumental lapse of sound judgment, because an undetermined number of Lincoln County citizens had the occasion to see one of their elected judges riding around town with a female litigant.  Certainly the citizenry of Brookhaven and Lincoln County, upon learning of the later fine reduction, at the very least, could infer that Twaddle had received favorable treatment from Judge Boone via the fine reduction as a result of this ex parte communication.

The Court took the “opportunity to remind all judges and law enforcement officials of the impropriety in having any ex parte communications with each other on the merits of pending litigation.”

The Commission had also found that, while they were in his vehicle, the judge inappropriately touched Twaddle and told her that he would “fix her fine” in exchange for sexual favors.  The judge denied those allegations.  Noting the “contradictory testimony” presented at the discipline hearing, the Court explained that it had been unable to reach a decision on whether the sexual allegations against the judge had been established by clear and convincing evidence.

No divorce from judicial role

In several recent judicial discipline cases, part-time judges were sanctioned for their conduct as attorneys.

In In the Matter of Senzer, 150 N.E.3d 21 (New York 2020), the New York Court of Appeals removed a part-time judge from office for repeatedly using language in 9 emails to 2 clients that was degrading, profane, vulgar, and sexist and that insulted their daughter, opposing counsel, and the presiding court attorney referee, including “an extremely crude gender-based slur to describe opposing counsel.”  The Court’s opinion does not specifically describe the language the judge used but accepted the determination of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which has detailed findings.  The judge sent the emails to 2 parents he was representing in a family court matter against their daughter in which they were seeking visitation rights to their grandchild.

The Court held that the judge’s “statements were manifestly vulgar and offensive, and his repeated use of such language in written communications to insult and demean others involved in the legal process showed a pervasive disrespect for the system, conveyed a perception of disdain for the legal system, and indicated that he is unable to maintain the high standard of conduct we demand of judges.”  It emphasized that the judge was “acting as an officer of the court representing clients in an ongoing litigation—a professional function integral to our legal system.”  The Court also explained that the judge’s “derogatory comments impugned not just the particular referee involved in this case but all judges, and with it, the judiciary.  In this context, petitioner’s conduct undermined the dignity and integrity of the judicial system.”

“Especially disturbing,” the Court stated, was the judge’s “use of an intensely degrading and ‘vile’ gendered slur to describe a female attorney” and his “demeaning reference to her as ‘eyelashes.’”  The Court noted that “it is critical to our judicial system that judges ‘conduct themselves in such a way that the public can perceive and continue to rely upon the impartiality of those who have been chosen to pass judgment on legal matters involving their lives, liberty and property.’”  The Court found that the judge’s misconduct was not “an isolated or spontaneous slip of the tongue, as the statements—repeated multiple times—were included in deliberative, written communications petitioner made to these clients relating to their legal representation.”

The Court also concluded that the judge’s belief that the emails would not be shared did not excuse his conduct, explaining, “because judges carry the esteemed office with them wherever they go, they must always consider how members of the public, including clients or colleagues, will perceive their actions and statements . . . .  Petitioner’s clients with whom he had a professional relationship are indisputably members of the public despite any personal relationship he had with them.”  The Court also emphasized that the judge’s “derogatory statements directly targeted the legal system and its participants writ large, and, thus, cannot be divorced from his judicial role, notwithstanding that petitioner communicated them when off the bench. . . .  A judge’s role is to cultivate respect for the judicial process and its participants—petitioner did just the opposite.”

In 2002, the Commission had issued the judge a letter of dismissal and caution for making sarcastic, disrespectful comments during a court proceeding.

The Court concluded:  “Such a pattern of conduct, engaged in over several months and combined with a prior caution by the Commission . . . constitutes an unacceptable and egregious pattern of injudicious behavior that warrants removal.”

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Accepting an agreed statement of facts and recommendation, the New York Commission publicly censured a part-time judge for, in addition to other misconduct, while acting as a private attorney in a civil case, making an insensitive remark about a co-defendant’s ethnicity and asserting his judicial office when confronted about the remark.  In the Matter of Tawil, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct December 12, 2019).

The judge appeared as a private defense attorney in the liability phase of a bifurcated trial in a personal injury case involving a car accident.  The judge represented 2 defendants; a co-defendant was of Hispanic descent.  Judge Genine Edwards presided over the trial.

On March 8, during his summation, the judge stated:

On the other hand, you have Mr. Batista.  He’s on the phone talking to his female girlfriend or someone.  He’s selling cell phones to his passenger, he’s listening to the radio, he said they’re having a good time in the car.  They’re having a good time and he’s paying attention to the passenger, to his girlfriend, probably to the radio.  For all we know, he could be frying up some platanos in the front seat [emphasis added].  We don’t know.  But he’s not paying attention to the road, what’s going on around him, okay.

The next day, before the jury was charged, Judge Edwards conducted an off-the-record conference with the judge and his client’s insurance adjuster in chambers.  During the conference, Judge Edwards told the judge that his summation remark about “platanos” was “racist” and said, “What’s going to happen now is your client is going to pay $25,000 to settle this case right now or I am going to report you to the Appellate Division Second Department.  That’s your license counselor.”  The judge replied that he was “a current Part-Time Town Justice” and that he would never “intentionally make a racist comment.”  The judge would testify that he was fearful of the threat and nervous when he said this.

The judge subsequently asked the Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics whether he was required to report Judge Edwards to the Commission; the Committee advised that he was.  In filing a complaint against Judge Edwards, the judge described his own conduct to the Commission, and the Commission also authorized an investigation of Judge Tawil’s own conduct.

The Commission found that Judge Tawil’s summation included “a demeaning remark” that “showed an insensitivity to the special ethical obligations of judges and detracted from the dignity of judicial office.”  The Commission acknowledged that “all attorneys (including those who are judges) have wide latitude in presenting argument to the jury,” but emphasized that “the tone of the comment and the assertion of his judicial office warrant a finding of misconduct.”

(In a separate proceeding, the Commission also publicly censured Judge Edwards, based on a stipulation, finding that her “explicit threat to complain to disciplinary authorities regarding Tawil’s summation comment in an effort to induce Tawil’s client to settle the matter pending before her for a specific amount was coercive and improper” and “weaponize[ed] her obligation to take appropriate action regarding substantial attorney misconduct . . . .”  In the Matter of Edwards, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct October 23, 2019).)

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The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded a pro tem judge for providing false information to law enforcement investigating her client.  Gillis, Order (Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct January 11, 2020).

In a family law matter, the judge was representing an individual who was subject to an order of protection that prohibited third-party contact.  Law enforcement investigated the judge’s client for an alleged violation of the order with respect to a phone call to the opposing party’s real estate agent.  The client told law enforcement that his attorney had also been on the line during the call, and, when initially contacted by law enforcement, the judge stated that she had been on the call.  Shortly thereafter, she notified the officer that her statement was false.  The judge was charged with providing false information to law enforcement.  The charges were dismissed after she successfully completed a diversion program.  She self-reported to the Commission and the State Bar.  The State Bar has also publicly reprimanded her.

Officer of the court candor

In several recent judicial discipline cases, judges were sanctioned for failing to be truthful and forthcoming with law enforcement.

The Illinois Courts Commission removed a judge from office for making false and misleading statements to detectives investigating the discharge of a firearm in his apartment, in addition to other misconduct.  In re O’Shea, Order (Illinois Courts Commission September 27, 2019).

In September 2017, the judge’s neighbors found a bullet inside their apartment and contacted the police.  When detectives went to the judge’s apartment, he initially told them that a hole in his wall had been caused by a screwdriver.  After the detectives told him that his neighbors had found a bullet, the judge suggested that his son may have accidentally fired a bullet through the wall.  On further questioning, the judge admitted that he had accidentally discharged a firearm and that the bullet had gone through the wall.

At the hearing before the Commission, the detectives testified that the judge’s admission came after they had interviewed him for at least 15 minutes.  The judge initially claimed that he had immediately told the detectives that the hole was from a bullet and denied blaming a screwdriver or his son.  The judge then testified that, although a screwdriver had been his first explanation, he had admitted only a few seconds later that he had fired a bullet through the wall.

The Commission found that the detectives were “credible, believable, and . . . had no basis for any bias,” and that the judge’s “testimony was not credible, not believable, and not truthful.”  The Commission emphasized that, although firing the bullet through the wall was not related to the judge’s duties, his “response to the incident was unacceptable for an officer of the court.”

* * *
The Illinois Commission removed a second judge for failing to disclose information relevant to the investigation of a homicide and providing false statements when questioned by police detectives.  In re Duebbert, Order (Illinois Courts Commission January 10, 2020).

Duebbert met David Fields in 2013, before he was a judge, and they developed and maintained a close personal relationship.  In 2015, Fields pled guilty to aggravated assault on a pregnant person and was incarcerated.  While Fields was incarcerated, Duebbert and Fields remained in contact through telephone calls, written correspondence, and the judge’s personal and attorney visits.

On October 24, 2016, Fields was released on mandatory supervision.  On November 4, Fields moved into the judge’s home.  On November 8, Duebbert was elected judge.  On December 2, Fields moved back to his mother’s home.  On December 5, Duebbert was sworn in as a judge.

On December 29, the judge and Fields exchanged texts; Fields used a cell phone with a 650 area code that was in the judge’s name and that the judge had given him to use several times, including earlier that day.

Early the next morning, December 30, Carl Silas was murdered.

Later that morning, Fields called the judge; their conversation lasted just over 3 minutes.  By noon, the judge knew that Field was a suspect in Silas’s murder.

That afternoon, 2 state police officers investigating the murder interviewed the judge at his home.  The officers asked the judge about his firearms and the 650 phone.  The interview was recorded.

In the discipline proceedings, the officers testified that, when they asked who had the 650 phone, the judge said that Fields had given it back to him in late November or early December and did not tell them that he had returned the phone to Fields the night before, that Fields had used that phone to text him the night before, or that he had received a phone call from Fields earlier that day.  The judge told the officers more than once that “if” he heard from Fields, he would tell Fields to turn himself in to the police.

The Commission found that the detectives’ testimony was credible, believable, and without bias.  The Commission rejected the judge’s testimony that he had told the detectives about his texts and phone call with Fields during an alleged off-camera interview and found that his testimony was “seriously wanting and unworthy of any belief” and that his arguments were “insulting and disturbing” from a former defense attorney and elected judicial officer.

The Commission concluded that the judge “intentionally led the police officers astray.  Rather than being forthcoming about his contact with Fields, respondent purposely deceived the investigators by failing to provide significant information he knew was relevant to the investigation.”  The Commission also found that the judge’s false and misleading statements had effectively misdirected the police investigation and “wasted significant police time and the use of personnel during the critical investigation of a homicide.”

Noting that the judge “tried to explain these false and misleading statements by suggesting that he was petrified when speaking with the officers,” the Commission stated that his “perceived fear does not excuse lying to the police during a homicide investigation” or “absolve his subsequent lies and misstatements in attempting to explain his actions in deceiving and misleading the investigations.”  The Commission found that “the more likely reason for the judge’s implausible testimony” was that he had reviewed his recorded statement to the officers, realized he had lied, and “crafted a new explanation to somehow explain that he was not lying during the police interview.”  It also concluded that, although his false and misleading statements were made outside the courtroom and in his private life, his “repeated falsehoods are intolerable for a sworn officer of the court.”  Finally, the Commission noted that the judge had “exploited his position to satisfy is personal desires” and “to shift the focus away from his involvement with Fields,” valuing “his reputation and position as a judge over providing truthful statements to the police.”

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Finding that she had given priority to personal considerations over law enforcement’s public safety concerns, the New Jersey Supreme Court suspended a former judge for 3 months without pay for withholding from the police information about the whereabouts of her boyfriend even though she knew there were warrants for his arrest and, when she was arrested for hindering apprehension, telling the officers that she had been “vetted” and asking to be handcuffed with her hands in front.  In the Matter of Brady (New Jersey Supreme Court August 6, 2020).

In June 2013, the judge had been a superior court judge for approximately 2 months, she had been involved in a romantic relationship with Jason Prontnicki for about 6 months, and Prontnicki was living in her home.  The judge was undergoing medical treatment to have a child with Prontnicki, and a doctor had told her that she might be pregnant.

On the morning of June 10, the judge went to the headquarters of the Woodbridge Township Police Department and told Officer Robert Bartko and others that Prontnicki had loaned her car to a friend without her permission.  She stated that she had told Prontnicki that, if she did not hear from him by 10:00 a.m. on the 10th, she would report the vehicle as stolen.

While the judge was at the police station, the officers learned that there were 2 open warrants for Prontnicki’s arrest and that his driver’s license had been suspended.  One of the warrants related to an armed robbery of a pharmacy in April in which the perpetrator allegedly threatened a pharmacist with a crowbar, demanding drugs.  The officers told the judge.  According to the police report, the officers told the judge that as “an officer of the court,” she was required to tell them “if and when” Prontnicki returned so that they could arrest him.

By text, the judge told 2 friends that she had just learned that Prontnicki had threatened a pharmacist with a crowbar and that, when the incident occurred, Prontnicki “was already staying with me and I was a judge.”  She added, “I can’t have him in my house cos I wud now be harboring a criminal . . .  I wud have to report him.”

Shortly after the judge returned to her home, Prontnicki called her and told her that he had her car and would return it; she told him that police officers had advised her that he had outstanding warrants and a suspended license.  According to the judge, Prontnicki denied knowing that he had any warrants or that his license had been suspended, and she told him that he needed to “go to the police and take care of it right away.”  The judge testified that Prontnicki said he would bring her car back first, and she told him “fine, it would be nice if you brought back [the] car, but you can’t come in my house.”

Immediately following that call, the judge texted a friend that Prontnicki “just called to tell me he got the car and will bring it home.”  She added that she had told him that “he can’t stay with me cos he has a warrant out for his arrest and I am required to notify authorities when I know someone has a warrant.  So I told him he must leave after he drops the car off as I must go to the police.”

At approximately 3:00 p.m., Prontnicki arrived at the judge’s home.  The judge was “a little surprised and shocked and then fearful,” and she told Prontnicki to leave.  When Prontnicki walked through the house to the garage, she followed him.  They talked for about an hour, joined by her father for the final 15 minutes.  According to the judge, Prontnicki denied having outstanding warrants and suggested that the police might be “trying to get you because you’re a judge.”  Eventually, Prontnicki’s brother picked him up.

Approximately 15 minutes after Prontnicki left her home, the judge called the police department, asked to speak with Bartko, and left a message on Bartko’s voicemail.

The next morning, Prontnicki called the judge, and they spoke for almost 3 hours.  According to her texts to her friend that afternoon, Prontnicki attempted to reassure the judge that “he had done nothing unlawful and that their relationship could be salvaged,” but she told him that “without written verified proof he and I can’t be seen or stay at my house together.”

At 3:31 p.m., the judge left a second voicemail message for Officer Bartko.

That afternoon, officers conducted surveillance of the judge’s residence.  At 3:48 p.m., driven by his brother, Prontnicki arrived at the judge’s home, entered the garage, and spoke with her.  After about an hour, Prontnicki left with a duffel bag.  Shortly thereafter, he was arrested.

Shortly after Prontnicki’s arrest, Sergeant Brian Murphy, a detective, and an officer went to the judge’s home and arrested her for hindering Prontnicki’s apprehension.  One officer testified that she said, “I’ve been vetted, take the cuffs off.”  According to the police report, the judge directed officers to take the handcuffs off and asked to be handcuffed with her hands in front rather than behind her.  The officers refused both requests.

After escorting the judge to the processing room at police headquarters, Bartko and other officers listened for the first time to the 2 voicemail messages she had left.

Later that evening, Sergeant Murphy, an officer, and an assistant prosecutor went to another judge’s home and presented a complaint warrant alleging that Judge Brady had “harbor[ed]” Prontnicki in her residence “for approximately 1 hour and never ma[de] any attempt to contact law enforcement.”  In the discipline proceedings, Murphy conceded that the statement that the judge never tried to contact law enforcement was inaccurate.  The other judge signed the complaint warrant.

Although a grand jury indicted the judge on charges of official misconduct and hindering apprehension or prosecution, all charges were dismissed with prejudice by March 2018.

In the discipline proceedings, the judge contended that the police had tampered with the recordings of her voicemail messages before producing them, deleting part of what she told Officer Bartko.  The judge and the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct both submitted reports from forensic audio experts.  The Court found that, even if the judge had included the information she claimed the police had deleted, she had not been “fully forthcoming” with the police, had provided only “a vague notion” of Prontnicki’s general location, and had failed to disclose what she knew of his plans and location and how much she had communicated with him.

The Court held that the judge’s communications with the police department “fall short of the high standards imposed by the Code” and that “it is apparent that respondent’s priorities were her personal concerns — particularly her relationship with Prontnicki –not her duty to the public.”  Noting that the judge “clearly understood that the charges against Prontnicki were serious and that the police viewed public safety to be at risk while he remained at large,” the Court emphasized that “she disclosed only minimal information about her extensive contacts with Prontnicki” in “perfunctory and vague” communications that “stand in stark contrast to the candid and detailed accounts she provided by text to her friends, in real time.”  The Court also faulted the judge for not trying to contact the officers by calling the police headquarters’ general telephone number, calling 9-1-1, or visiting police headquarters.

The Court acknowledged that the judge “was undoubtedly in a difficult situation during the two days at issue here” and that it was “understandable that respondent was upset as those disturbing events unfolded.”  However, it explained:

As a judge, . . . respondent was not at liberty to address her circumstances with only herself and her personal relationships in mind.  The WTPD was searching for an individual who allegedly robbed a pharmacy by threatening a pharmacist with a crowbar.  A judge had found probable cause and issued a warrant for his arrest, and WTPD officers were charged to execute that warrant in the interest of public safety.  It was incumbent on respondent to fully cooperate with law enforcement in their search for Prontnicki, notwithstanding her distressing personal circumstances. . . .

The public has the right to expect that when police officers are searching for a fugitive accused of a violent crime and a judge has detailed knowledge of the whereabouts, activities and immediate plans of that fugitive, the judge will take prompt and decisive action to ensure that law enforcement is fully informed.  There is no exception to that principle when the judge and the fugitive have a personal relationship.

In a dissent, 1 justice described his disagreements with the Committee’s findings and the Court’s conclusions and argued that the judge should not be disciplined for “not leaving more information on a voicemail that the police recklessly failed to retrieve and for not acting as the perfect police informant during the tumultuous hours at issue . . . , and for not calling the police in the presence of a potentially violent criminal . . . .”  He stated:

Today’s majority decision is a sad epilogue to Judge Carlia Brady’s seven-year nightmare journey through the criminal justice system and the judicial disciplinary process.  Seven years ago, Judge Brady was the quintessential American success story — a Filipino-American immigrant, who became an accomplished lawyer and rose from the ranks of the Bar to become a Superior Court judge.  Just several months after her judicial appointment, her career, her reputation, her health — her life — would be in ruins, the victim of overzealous Woodbridge Township police officers, who filed criminal charges that could not be sustained in court.

 

Intoxicated altercation

Based on agreements, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended 3 judges for injudicious conduct that culminated in a verbal altercation, a physical altercation, and gunfire outside a White Castle restaurant.  In the Matter of Adams, Jacobs, and Bell (Indiana Supreme Court November 12, 2019).

On the evening of April 30, 2019, Judge Andrew Adams, Judge Bradley Jacobs, and Judge Sabrina Bell traveled to Indianapolis to attend the Spring Judicial College the next day.  After checking into their hotel rooms, they spent the evening socializing with other judicial officers and drinking alcoholic beverages.

Around 12:30 a.m. on May 1, the judges and a magistrate met at a bar, where they continued to drink.  Around 3:00 a.m., the group walked to a strip club and tried to enter, but found that it was closed.

The group then walked to a White Castle.  While the magistrate went inside, the judges stood outside.  Around 3:17 a.m., Alfredo Vazquez and Brandon Kaiser drove past and shouted something out the window.  Judge Bell extended her middle finger to Vazquez and Kaiser.

Vazquez and Kaiser pulled into the White Castle parking lot and exited the vehicle.  There was a “heated verbal altercation . . . , with all participants yelling, using profanity, and making dismissive, mocking, or insolent gestures toward the other group.”  The judges did not “de-escalate the conflict” or avoid a confrontation by moving to another location in the parking lot,

After a verbal exchange between Judge Bell and Vazquez, there was a physical confrontation.  At one point, Judge Jacobs had Kaiser on the ground, raised his fist raised back, and said, “Okay, okay, we’re done, we’re done,” or “This is over.  Tell me this is over,” or words to that effect.  At another point, Judge Adams kicked Kaiser in the back.  Judge Bell made several attempts to stop the fighting, including seeking help by pounding on the door of the White Castle.  The confrontation ended when Kaiser pulled out a gun, shot Judge Adams once in the abdomen and shot Judge Jacobs twice in the chest.  Judge Bell immediately called 911.

Judge Adams and Judge Jacobs were transported to local hospitals.  Judge Adams had 2 emergency surgeries, including a colon re-sectioning.  Judge Jacobs had 2 emergency surgeries and was hospitalized for 14 days.

Upon admission to the hospital, Judge Adams’s serum blood alcohol level was 0.213 (or approximately 0.157 using whole blood), and Judge Jacobs’s was 0.177 (or approximately 0.13 using whole blood).  Judge Bell’s blood alcohol level was not tested, but she was intoxicated enough that she does not remember the incident.

In her statements at the police station, Judge Bell said that she does not remember what she said to Vazquez or Kaiser or what started the physical altercations.  After being informed that police had video of the incident, Judge Bell remarked that

  • “I’m afraid that I said something to them first, I don’t know.”
  • “[W]e’re all very good friends and they’re very protective of me. And I don’t know, and I’m afraid that I said something to those two strange men at first, and then they said something back to me.  And then I said something and then [Judge Adams and Judge Jacobs] went to defend me.”
  • “I’m not denying that I said something or egged it on … because I drink … I mean I fully acknowledge that I drink and get mouthy, and I’m fiery and I’m feisty, but if I would have ever thought for a second that they were gonna fight or that that guy had a gun on him, I would never, never …”

A grand jury indicted Judge Adams on 7 counts of battery and disorderly conduct.  The grand jury also investigated Judge Jacobs, but no criminal charges were filed against him.  The Court suspended Judge Adams from the bench.  On September 9, Judge Adams pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery resulting in bodily injury.  All other charges were dismissed, and Judge Adams was sentenced to 365 days in jail, with 363 days suspended.

The Court held that the judges’ “actions were not merely embarrassing on a personal level; they discredited the entire Indiana judiciary.”  The Court concluded:

While in town to attend a statewide educational conference for judicial officers, 10 hours before the program convened, Respondents walked the streets of downtown Indianapolis in a heavily intoxicated state.  When Judge Bell extended her middle finger to a passing vehicle, neither Judge Adams nor Judge Jacobs discouraged the provocation or removed themselves from the situation.  Instead, all three Respondents joined in a profane verbal altercation that quickly turned into physical violence and ended in gunfire, and in doing so, gravely undermined public trust in the dignity and decency of Indiana’s judiciary.

The Court suspended Judge Adams for 60 days without pay and Judge Jacobs and Judge Bell for 30 days without pay.

Obsession, fixation, intimidation, and retaliation

Based on the findings of a judicial conduct panel, the Wisconsin Supreme Court suspended a former municipal court judge for 3 years from eligibility for appointment as a reserve judge for a “pattern of obsessive conduct about whether [the court manager] liked him as a friend” and trying to intimidate her or retaliate against her for reporting him.  Judicial Commission v. Kachinsky (Wisconsin Supreme Court July 9, 2019).

The judge was the part-time, elected judge for the Village of Fox Crossing Municipal Court, which holds sessions approximately 3 Thursday evenings a month for 90-120 minutes.  In the spring of 2016, the judge hired M.B. as the full-time court manager.  The judge and M.B. shared a small office in the municipal building.  Even before M.B. was hired, she and the judge had been “friends” on Facebook; each had hundreds of friends on Facebook, including a number of mutual friends.  At the beginning of M.B.’s employment, they had occasional conversations about their personal lives, developed a friendship, and engaged in occasional joint activities outside of work.

Beginning in March 2017, however, their relationship became strained after “a couple of incidents that M.B. found concerning.”  First, in a public comment to a post on M.B.’s Facebook page, the judge stated that M.B. was “on her second honeymoon” at “an undisclosed location.”  M.B. informed him that this was incorrect, and he apologized.  A few days later, the judge hid behind a counter at the court office, and, when M.B. walked in, he popped up and shouted “roar,” startling M.B.  During that visit, the judge’s “loud and boisterous” conduct disturbed village employees.  In an e-mail after the visit, the judge told M.B. that he hoped his visit had made her day and that it was something he was “more than happy to do for my best friends.”  M.B. told the judge in an e-mail that “it would help her focus on her job if they kept their relationship work-related.”  In an e-mail in response, the judge agreed to minimize discussion of non-business matters during business hours but indicated that he wanted to continue to discuss their everyday personal lives.

After the judge sent numerous other e-mails to her about personal matters, M.B. filed a complaint with the village’s human resources manager.  In a meeting the next day, the human resources manager explained to the judge the concerns about his behavior and developed guidelines, including that no personal information about colleagues would be shared on social media, that all phone and e-mail communications would relate to business matters, and that the judge would only visit the office once a week.

However, the panel found, the judge “was upset as a result of the meeting and was determined to express his displeasure to M.B. and to reject any limitation on communications to work-related matters.”  The judge sent M.B. several e-mails that included personal matters, insisted that he needed to have a personal friendship with her, and invited her to participate in a non-work activity.

On 3 occasions, the judge went to the municipal court office, sat close to M.B.’s desk, facing her, and did nothing except tap his pen and make “cat noises;” on 1 visit, the judge “continued this extremely odd behavior for 45 minutes.”  During one of the visits, the judge told M.B. a story about a dog being raped and then repeated the story.

In a telephone call, the village manager and the village attorney explained to the judge his potential violations of the village’s policy prohibiting harassment in the workplace, advised him to maintain professional decorum at work, and told him to stop communicating with M.B. about personal matters.

Over the following weekend, the judge told M.B. in an e-mail that he wanted to “hit the reset button,” claiming that it had not been clear to him that she wished to avoid after-hours activities with him but that he now understood.  However, he also chastised M.B. for not telling him directly and said:

My main concern is that a “work only” discussion policy should not preclude normal “water cooler” discussion of things like the Packers, Badgers, child graduations, children having children, recent vacation adventures, etc.  I need to know what you consider to be “over the line.” . . .  Walking on eggshells during what should be relaxed casual conversations is not good for productivity or mental health.  Your ideas on this are welcome.

The judge also complained that M.B. had “defriended” him on Facebook and encouraged her to reverse that decision.

After that e-mail, the village manager sent the judge a letter pointing out that he had violated the village’s direction not to discuss the personal relationship with M.B. and reminding him that he was not to engage in any communications with her beyond work matters.

Approximately 2 weeks later, the judge sent M.B. an e-mail that, he acknowledged, “violate[d] every principle we have talked about regarding office conduct the last few weeks” but continued, “Feel free to report me to HR.  I feel spunky this morning.”  The judge sent her other e-mails about having “a beer or wine summit” and ending “the strict restrictions on no nonwork related discussions and replace it with use of respect and common sense.”

In an e-mail to the human resources manager in June 2017, the judge claimed that the incidents about which M.B. had complained were “minor” and that her unwillingness to accept his view of how their relationship should work was detrimental to the municipal court office.  He stated that he preferred not to work with “such a person any longer than possible,” suggested that the human resources manager advise M.B. to “give a little bit on the work-only thing,” and explained that the alternative was for him to terminate her employment.  In a subsequent e-mail, the judge told the human resources manager that, although he had not made a final decision on whether to fire M.B., she had until 5:00 p.m. that day to decide if she accepted his “rules” for their professional and personal relationship.  Later that day, the village attorney informed the judge that his conduct violated the village’s policy against harassment and that his threats to terminate M.B. constituted retaliatory conduct that, if carried out, would violate the law.

After receiving the letter, the judge “elevated his conduct.”  He posted to his Facebook page that “[t]he sh— is not over.  I might have an employee termination today.  Not mine.”  The panel found that, although “the post did not explicitly name M.B., the only conclusion a reader could draw was that M.B. was about to be fired because she was the only employee he supervised either at the municipal court or in his private law practice.”

On July 17, while alone with M.B. in the municipal court office, the judge lunged over her desk, knocking some items off and whispering to her:  “Are you afraid of me now?”  The panel found that the judge was attempting “to intimidate M.B. into acquiescing in his fixation on a personal relationship with her.”

That evening, the judge ran into something on his way out of the courtroom, and his arm began to bleed.  He used his pay stub envelop to stop the bleeding then left the blood-stained envelope on his desk in the office where M.B. could observe it.  The panel found that this “was an attempt either to intimidate M.B. or to elicit sympathy from her . . . , an intentional non-verbal communication that had nothing to do with work.”

In an e-mail later that evening, the judge told M.B.:  “[I]f you want to restore a happy workplace, the first step is to stand up on your own and not use the Administration as a crutch. . . .  I can overlook what I consider poor judgment in handling a situation.  I cannot tolerate a weakling unwilling to have free and open discussions with the boss (or insubordination).”

On July 21, the Judicial Commission notified the judge that it was investigating allegations against him and advised him to “scrupulously avoid retaliatory conduct or witness intimidation.”

On July 26, the village manager held another meeting with the judge about keeping his relationship with M.B. work-related.  After that meeting, the judge dropped a white flag he had fashioned from office supplies on M.B.’s desk and said, “Here you go, I surrender, you win.”

However, the Court stated, the judge “was far from ending his campaign.”  For example, on October 27, the judge wrote a letter to M.B. reprimanding her for forwarding to the village manager e-mails that the judge had written to her.  On November 2, in the presence of M.B. and the human resources manager, the judge mentioned Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and stated loudly, “I don’t do that crap and you should get that through your thick head.”

The next day, the judge sent a letter to M.B. that stated:  “By this time next week some things are going to happen that will cause a lot of fire and fury at the Municipal Building.  No, I am not resigning.  Just be psychologically prepared.  Have a good weekend.”  M.B. and villages officials were so disturbed by that e-mail that the village police were notified.  When the police chief interviewed him about the e-mail, the judge giggled more than once.

On Saturday, November 25, the judge sent an e-mail scolding M.B. for ignoring a previous e-mail in which he had wished her and her family a happy holiday.  The e-mail also stated:  “Will not spend the next 1.5 years or 5.5 years working with someone who actively despises me.  I have told you this many times.  We are approaching the end of the line on this.”  The e-mail concluded that, “There was an allegation missing from the additional letter from the [Judicial Commission]” and a picture of a kitchen sink was attached.

The next day, the judge dropped off a reprimand letter alleging that M.B. had falsely stated that he was stalking or tracking her in her complaint to the village 6 months earlier.

On Saturday, December 23, the judge wrote another letter of reprimand to M.B. based on her alleged refusal to return his Christmas greetings and her failure to respond positively to his efforts to improve workplace rapport.  On his Facebook page, the judge posted a sad face emoji with:  “Len Kachinsky was feeling sad.  Few things are sadder than a co-worker who refuses to return a Merry Christmas greeting out of spite.”

Following additional e-mails and meetings, M.B. sought and received a harassment injunction against the judge.

Less than 2 weeks later, the judge left on his desk where M.B. would see it a poster with a picture of the village manager’s face and the caption:  “I am from the government and I am here to help you.  WWRD #notmetoo.”  The judge also posted on his desk facing M.B.’s desk a copy of a page from the village personnel manual, entitled “Sexual Harassment,” with the word “sexual” highlighted 7 times in yellow marker.  M.B. believed that the poster and the copy of the sexual harassment policy violated the terms of the harassment injunction.  The police were contacted, and the judge was arrested.

On July 11, the state filed a criminal complaint charging the judge with 1 count of felony stalking and 2 misdemeanor counts of violating a harassment injunction.  Shortly before the trial, the district attorney’s office dropped the misdemeanor counts.  A jury found the judge not guilty on the felony charge.

The judge’s primary argument was that the village officials did not have the authority to regulate his “supervision of a resistant employee in an effort to ‘restore a level of personal rapport,’” which he believed was “a legitimate and laudable objective that is necessary for a workplace to perform effectively.”  The Court concluded, however, that, regardless whether “he was legally obligated to abide by the directives given by representatives of the village, he was obligated by the relevant provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct to maintain high standards of personal conduct and to act in a manner that promotes the integrity of the judiciary.”  The Court explained:

We fail to see how staring at a court employee for 45 minutes while tapping a pencil and making cat noises constitutes the maintenance of high standards of personal conduct or promotes the integrity of the judiciary.  Indeed, it does just the opposite.  Serving the people as a judicial officer does not allow a judge to impose his/her every opinion about personal interactions on subordinate court personnel or to force those subordinates to be the judge’s personal friends.

Judges are entitled to ensure that their subordinate employees perform their work responsibilities in appropriate manners.  Judge Kachinsky’s pattern of obsessive conduct about whether M.B. liked him as a friend clearly passed well over the line and brought the municipal court he administered into public disrepute. . . .  The notoriety that resulted from his insistence that M.B. had to be not only his court clerk, but also his friend, certainly caused the residents of the Village of Fox Crossing who appeared in his court to question whether he had the temperament and stability to preside over their cases in a proper manner.

The Court stated that “M.B. was required to process case files and deal with the public as a manager of the municipal court, not to satisfy Judge Kachinsky’s personal opinion that employees must also be personal friends.”  The Court noted that his acquittal on the felony stalking charge did not mean that he was innocent of the ethical violations.

An article on “Professional boundaries in the courthouse” about other judicial discipline cases involving attempts by a judge to force a close personal relationship with a court staff member was published in the summer 2018 issue of the Judicial Conduct Reporter.

 

Willful ignorance, unreasonable credulity, and misappropriation

Two recent judicial discipline cases involved misappropriation of money – over $11,000 by a judge from a DWI fund in 1 case and over $265,000 by a judge’s friend from an estate in the second.

The New Jersey Supreme Court censured a former judge for directing that money from a municipal DWI fund be disbursed to himself without the required pre-approval from his assignment judge; the Court also permanently barred him from judicial office and ordered that he pay restitution of $11,995.85 to the state.  In the Matter of Corradino (June 5, 2019).  The Court’s order does not describe the judge’s misconduct; this summary is based on the presentment of the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.

To help municipal courts promptly dispose of DWI matters, a state statute creates a fund to defray the costs of additional court sessions needed to expeditiously address pending and backlogged DWI cases.  Acceptable expenditures include “payments to municipal court judges, municipal prosecutors and other municipal court personnel for work performed in addition to regular employment hours.”  Guidelines require written approval from the assignment judge of the vicinage in which a municipality is located prior to any disbursements from the DWI fund.

From 2009 through 2013 and in 2015, the judge, without advising his assignment judge, verbally directed the township treasurer to disburse funds “mostly to himself and, for a few years, to the municipal prosecutor and other municipal court personnel.”  The judge received between $647 to $3,001 from the DWI fund in each of those years.

The Committee noted that the judge “has asserted, at various times, inconsistent defenses,” for example, that he did not receive the annual memorandum about the DWI fund or the related guidelines, that he received them but failed to read them, and that he started reading but stopped because he “mistakenly believed he was already sufficiently educated.”  The judge also claimed that “the checks and balances of the court system should have earlier detected and more explicitly alerted him to his procedural noncompliance. . . .”  The Committee rejected those  defenses.

The Committee also concluded that the judge’s “assertion that he would have been entitled to receive at least some of the DWI Fund monies if he had filled out the appropriate form is not supported by the evidence,” noting that there was no evidence that the judge held special sessions or that his court had a backlog requiring special sessions.  The Committee also stated that the extra work the judge claimed he performed outside of court, such as legal research and drafting opinions, would not qualify as an acceptable expenditures from the DWI fund.  “More importantly,” the Committee stated, the judge should not have “usurped” the assignment judge’s role in determining “what would qualify as a compensable event under the DWI Fund Guidelines.”

The Committee concluded that the judge’s “purported lack of willfulness or intentionality” was not a sufficient basis to withhold discipline.

Respondent, by virtue of his judicial office, was duty-bound to know and adhere his conduct to the rules and statutes that govern the municipal court, including the strictures pertaining to the operation of the DWI Fund and the attendant requirements for receipt of expenditures from same. . . .  Willful ignorance of these strictures cannot reasonably serve as a defense to Respondent’s unauthorized receipt of state funds.

* * *
Based on a joint statement of circumstances and conditional agreement for discipline, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended a judge without pay for 45 days for appointing an unqualified friend as trustee of a trust and personal representative of a related estate, failing to disclose their friendship and financial relationship, and “failing to act promptly when faced with mounting evidence of the friend’s mismanagement and embezzlement of the funds entrusted to him.”  In the Matter of Freese, Per curiam opinion (Indiana Supreme Court June 4, 2019).

The judge has known Stephen Scott since about 1990, having worked with him in the county prosecutor’s office where Scott supervised adult protective services.  The judge lunched regularly with Scott and considered him one of his closest friends.

In 2004, Scott needed $122,400 to buy a home but had poor credit after a bankruptcy.  The judge used his line of credit to lend Scott the funds.  On January 13, 2005, they executed and recorded a mortgage in that amount, and Scott gave the judge a promissory note.

17 days later, the judge appointed Scott as trustee over the Herbert Hochreiter Living Trust.  None of the parties objected; the judge never disclosed his financial arrangement with Scott.

Later in 2005, Hochreiter died, and an estate was opened with an estimated $2.3 million in real and personal property.  On October 24, the judge appointed Scott as personal representative of the estate.  None of the parties objected; the judge did not disclose his financial arrangement with Scott.

On June 12, 2007, when the estate had been pending for nearly 2 years, the judge advised Scott that a final report and accounting was due.  Although the judge granted Scott’s request for a 180-day extension, Scott never filed a final report and accounting.  Through 2009, Scott repeatedly disregarded the judge’s directives to file accountings in the 2 cases.  In December 2009, Scott filed a partial, defective trust accounting and then sought an extension to January 29, 2010.  The judge granted the extension over the objection of a beneficiary who was concerned that gold bars might be missing from the trust and that Scott had disregarded accounting requirements from the beginning.

In January 2010, Scott asked to withdraw as trustee.  The beneficiaries objected to Scott resigning without submitting a complete accounting and filing tax returns and other legal documents.  The judge gave Scott 30 days to respond to the objection.

Scott relocated to Florida and never responded.

The Court found that, from August 2010 through July 2012, the judge “had multiple indications of Scott’s poor performance:  summonses sent to Scott were returned to sender;” Scott’s counsel reported that Scott was unresponsive and that the trust checking account contained only $8.27 and its savings account had been closed when it should have $50,000 to $60,000 in cash; and a beneficiary “filed a detailed objection and multiple rules to show cause or contempt citations against Scott.”  The Court also found that the judge “‘took no action or minimal action’ on those reports.”  The judge did leave Scott a phone message when Scott was living in Florida that stated “he was concerned that Scott was behaving bizarrely, and that he ‘would never have thought [Scott] would have stolen anything.’”

On July 31, 2012, when the cases had been pending nearly 7 years, the judge ordered Scott to appear in person and bring all financial records to a show cause hearing in September.  The hearing was later rescheduled to November, but Scott failed to appear.  The judge held him in contempt and found that he had permitted substantial amounts of money to be removed from the trust for non-trust purposes.

In January 2013, after a damages hearing, the judge entered judgment against Scott for nearly $580,000, finding that (1) between September 2007 and August 2011, there were disbursements totaling $140,550 from trust accounts to Scott’s personal accounts, plus another $101,217 in wire transfers or cash withdrawals not corresponding to legitimate disbursements and (2) in January 2010, $16,800 was transferred from estate accounts to Scott’s personal account, and the estate’s remaining bank balance of $6,517.08 was taken by unexplained cash withdrawal.  The Court also held that the amounts directed to Scott’s accounts should be trebled as punitive damages, for a total judgment, including the remaining un-trebled sums, of $579,784.08.

The judge never referred those findings to the local prosecutor or to the U.S. Attorney.  However, in 2017, Scott pleaded guilty to federal charges related to his embezzlement.  The stolen funds remain unrecovered.

The Court noted that the judge’s misconduct was mostly negligent, not willful, and involved 1 case, not “systemic neglect.”  However, it emphasized that the judge’s “misconduct ultimately enabled a massive theft.”  It held that the judge violated the duty to make “appointments . . . impartially and on the basis of merit” because Scott “lacked fiduciary experience and had been bankrupt recently enough to have poor credit.”  The Court noted that, although, “subjectively, the Judge trusted Scott, as his loan shows,” “objectively, Scott was utterly unqualified to be entrusted with a third party’s money; appointing him seems to have been driven by friendship, not merit.”  In addition, the Court concluded, “that friendship clouded the Judge’s objectivity through seven years of warning signs—making him unreasonably credulous of, and lenient towards, Scott in the face of growing evidence of serious financial misconduct.  If not for the Judge’s inaction, Scott’s theft likely could have been largely prevented.”

 

Deteriorating relationship

Accepting her resignation, the Colorado Supreme Court publicly censured a former court of appeals judge for (1) disclosing to an intimate, non-spousal partner the vote of a court of appeals division on a case prior to the issuance of the decision and (2) using inappropriate racial epithets in communications with her intimate partner.  In the Matter of Booras (Colorado Supreme Court March 11, 2019).  In March 2018, the Court had granted the request of the Commission on Judicial Discipline to suspend the judge with pay pending the disciplinary proceedings.  The judge resigned after the Commission recommended her removal.

In 2007, the judge began a 10-year relationship with a man whom she met online (“J.S.”).  J.S. told the judge that he was divorced and living in Denver, although the judge later learned that he was married and living in California.  They did not see each other frequently, but they communicated often, and the judge described their relationship as “intimate” and believed it would lead to marriage.

By early 2017, however, “the relationship was deteriorating, and Judge Booras had good reason to distrust J.S.”

On February 21, 2017, the judge and other judges in a division of the court of appeals heard oral argument in a case about the extent to which a state commission was required to consider public health and the environment in deciding whether to grant permits for oil and gas development.

The next morning, the judge sent an e-mail to J.S. that said:

We had an oral argument yesterday re: fracking ban where there was standing room only and a hundred people in our overflow video room.  The little Mexican is going to write in favor of the Plaintiffs and it looks like I am dissenting in favor of the Oil and Gas Commission.  You and Sid [a colleague of J.S.] will be so disappointed.

“The little Mexican” was a reference to one of Judge Booras’s colleagues, “a Latina who would ultimately write the opinion for the majority in that case.”  Judge Booras wrote the dissent.

At some point in 2018, J.S.’s wife contacted the judge, and the judge told her about the affair. Shortly thereafter, J.S. provided The Denver Post, the chief judge of the Court of Appeals, the governor, the Commission on Judicial Discipline, and counsel for the plaintiffs in the case several communications from the judge.

The Court found that the judge had disclosed confidential information — the court’s vote in the case — to a third party.  The Court also found that the judge “had used an inappropriate racial epithet in communicating with J.S.,” noting that it was not the first time as she had referred to her ex-husband’s new wife, a woman of Navajo descent, as “the squaw” in an e-mail to J.S a year earlier.

The Court held that the judge’s “use of an inappropriate racial epithet directed at one of her colleagues” and her disclosure of confidential information “obviously impaired harmony and trust among her co-workers . . . .”   The Court emphasized that the judge’s “relationship with the colleague at whom her ‘little Mexican’ comment was directed” was particularly affected, noting that the other judge had been “justifiably shocked and deeply hurt by Judge Booras’s comments” and that a close working relationships with other judges is “integral to a collaborative decision-making body” like the court of appeals.  The Court also explained that “knowledge of Judge Booras’s racially inappropriate comments could understandably have caused concern among parties of diverse backgrounds, and particularly those of Latino and Native American ancestry, who inevitably would have appeared before Judge Booras were she to have returned to the court of appeals.  The judicial system cannot function properly if public confidence in a court is eroded in this way.”

The judge argued that “a judge’s communications with an intimate partner should be given First Amendment protection unless the speech ‘violates a specific narrowly-tailored rule of judicial conduct or falls within an ordinary exception to the First Amendment.’”  Rejecting that argument, the Court held that “inappropriate racial epithets and derogatory remarks are not matters of legitimate public concern warranting First Amendment protection.”  The Court also concluded that any First Amendment interests “are outweighed by the state’s countervailing interests.”