Top judicial ethics stories of 2017
In the courtroom
- “$4,000,000,000.” Judge imposing bond on a murder suspect. Brown (Texas Commission 2017) (reprimand for this and other misconduct).
- “Brief appearance for the hat. P***ed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary, so [sic]. I was the only Trump supporter up there, but that’s okay.” Judge explaining why he wore “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” baseball cap in the courtroom the day after the U.S. presidential election. Zabel (Ontario 2017) (30-day suspension).
- “We’re going to switch judges.” Judge before giving her robe to a clerk/staff attorney and allowing her to sit behind the bench and preside over cases. Turner (Illinois Commission 2017) (retirement for being mentally unable to perform duties).
- “We don’t know whether he’s some white guy like me making a threat or somebody who’s, you know, more likely to be a gangster.” Judge during murder trial outside presence of jury. North (Washington Commission 2017) (admonishment).
- “I’m not an expert, I’m not a developer, I’m not a contractor, but I’ve been involved in real estate a little bit” and, “the truth gets left out when people are trying to cover their butts.” Judge in a small claims action. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “I am disturbed by the way you came back with such a harsh verdict and sentence for this man’s life in such a short time. Did you even discuss the details of the case at all?” Judge to jury following guilty verdict. Hawthorne (Texas Commission 2017) (reprimand for this and other misconduct).
- “This is one of the few things this country asks our citizens to do, come up here and pass judgment. And in return, we send you disability checks. And you turn around and come up to me and tell me, I don’t want to serve because I do not understand. You understand perfectly. Your English is no problem.” Judge to prospective juror. Aguilar (Texas Commission 2017) (reprimand for this and additional misconduct).
To or about litigants
- “I’m aware there’s been multiple violations of the order of protection.” Judge relying on ex parte information from two sources. Curran (New York Commission 2017) (admonishment).
- “[You need] to do a research program on Charlie Manson and the cult that he has. Your behavior in the hall with me months ago, your behavior in this courtroom, your behavior back there, is unlike any I’ve ever seen in any 46,000 cases. You, young man, are the worst one. So you have bought yourself living in Children’s Village, going to the bathroom in public, and maybe Summer school, I don’t know . . . .” Judge to 13-year-old boy in custody proceeding. Gorcyca, 902 N.W.2d 828 (Michigan 2017) (censure for this and similar comments).
- “To some extent I think ‘dumb-a**’ should be engraved on his forehead.” Judge about defendant during sentencing hearing. Ditsworth (Arizona Commission 2017) (reprimand).
- “Is it you like the money? Or you just like the action?” Judge taking the plea of a defendant charged with prostitution. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “Gift for the day.” Judge when sentencing criminal defendants. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “Just so you know, ma’am, I grew up in a relationship where I used to get the crap beat out of me on a regular basis by a stepfather . . . . So I have some understanding of what you’re going through, okay? From a child’s perspective.” Judge after defense attorney said that defendant was in an abusive relationship. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “Slap him upside the head a few times, make sure he stays off the drugs.” Judge to defendant’s mother. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “No cerveza. No tequila. No alcohol. Nada” Judge to defendant with Spanish surname. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
To or about attorneys
- “If they’re coming for me, they are likely coming for you.” Judge ex parte to public defenders after city attorney’s office filed a blanket challenge against him. Kreep (California 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “So our district attorney’s failure to do the job with which he was being paid to do has created a lot of problems for everybody: the citizens, the defendants.” Judge in habeas corpus hearing. Schildknecht (Texas Commission 2017) (reprimand).
- “I love her accent,” and “I wasn’t planning on having you deported.” Judge to public defender. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “Star Parker,” “Bun Head,” “Ms. Dimples,” and “Shorty.” Judge referring in court to deputy city attorney and interns for public defender. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “The lovely attorney next to you went over the form, correct?” Judge to defendant about public defender. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “If you’re good during your argument, I’ll give you some cookies, little boy.” Judge to law student intern with the city attorney’s office who appeared for an arraignment. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “And I had a Filipino teacher who always used to ask for a sh** of paper.” Judge during trial about misunderstanding what someone said. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
- “Does the 30-day notice require the abandonment of property wording?” Judge asking attorney for advice about a case the attorney was not handling. Kreep (California Commission 2017) (censure for this and other misconduct).
To or about court staff
- “Besides, she is sexy as hell.” Judge in letter of recommendation for his judicial secretary. In re Iddings, 897 N.W.2d 169 (Michigan 2017) (6-month suspension without pay and censure for this and related misconduct).
- “That c***! That f******g b***h!” Court commissioner after learning an interpreter had reported to her supervisor that he had spoken harshly to her in the courtroom. Kliszewski (California Commission 2017) (admonishment for this and other misconduct).
- “Sperm donors.” Judge about men in general and a bailiff specifically. Haviland (Nevada Commission 2017) (1-year suspension without pay for this and other misconduct).
To abuse the prestige of office
- “So we need to call her today.” Judge to another judge about a third judge who was presiding over her son’s case. Roca, 173 A.3d 1176 (Pennsylvania 2017) (removal).
- “Hi, I figured it out and I took care of it.” Judge to another judge reporting that she had provided favorable treatment to a third judge’s son. Segal, 173 A.3d 603 (Pennsylvania 2017) (removal for this and other misconduct).
- “Give this to Judge Hawthorne and have him dismiss it for me.” Judge to office assistant at another court about a ticket received by an acquaintance. Aluzzi (New York Commission 2017) (censure).
- “If this ticket was in my courtroom, I’d dismiss it.” Judge to prosecutor about a ticket issued to his daughter. Ayres, 85 N.E.3d 1011 (New York 2017) (removal for this and other misconduct).
- “Part of my family.” Judge in character letter on judicial stationery in support of a motion to vacate her former babysitter’s gambling conviction. Ramirez (New York Commission 2017) (admonishment for this and other misconduct).
- “Well, does she just need a ride or something?” Judge to police officer at the scene of an accident involving his intern. Simpson, 902 N.W.2d 383 (Michigan 2017) (9-month suspension without pay).
- “Please! I’m a judge. Don’t do this to me. I did not flunk this. I didn’t flunk it!” Judge to trooper during a traffic stop when she did not pass a field sobriety test. Williams (Ohio 2017).
- “Bring it Angleton, Texas, County Court Number Three . .. you s**k!” Judge to umpire at his son’s baseball game. Warren (Texas Commission 2017) (warning).
- “Hey Connie, this is Kurt, um, when you’re testifying in that trial there might be a couple of things that you could do that would really help Stacey.” Judge in voicemail message to witness prior to his wife’s trial on federal charges. Pomrenke, 806 S.E.2d 749 (Virginia 2017) (removal for this and related misconduct).
- “I stand behind what we did. I have no qualms about what happened and how we prosecuted the matter. I believe it was completely justice done.” Judge to reporter about a pending case he had tried as a prosecutor. Kephart (Nevada Commission 2017) (reprimand).
- “[T]here’s no way” it was in the child’s best interest to stay with his stepmother. Judge to reporter explaining custody decision. Potter (Nevada Commission 2017) (60-day suspension without pay and $5,000 fine for this and other misconduct).
What they said that got them in trouble in the first half of 2017.
Top judicial ethics stories of 2017
In 2017, as a result of state disciplinary proceedings, 6 judges were removed from office. In addition, 15 judges or former judges resigned or retired in lieu of discipline pursuant to public agreements with conduct commissions; 1 judge was ordered retired based on a finding of mental inability to perform duties; 1 judge’s permanent resignation was ordered based on compromised cognitive and physical abilities; and 1 judge was suspended without pay until the end of his term.
17 judges were suspended without pay as a final sanction; the length of the suspensions ranged from 2 years (plus a $15,000 fine) to 3 weeks (plus a public censure). 6 of the other suspensions also included reprimands, censures, and/or fines.
64 judges (or former judges in 4 cases) were publicly censured, reprimanded, admonished, or warned. There were:
- 12 censures. 1 censure was severe, 1 was based on the judge’s agreement to tender his irrevocable resignation and not seek or hold judicial office in the state, 1 was based on a former judge’s agreement not to hold judicial office, and 1 included a retired judge’s agreement to resign his commission as an emergency judge.
- 31 reprimands. 2 of the reprimands barred former judges from judicial office, and 7 also ordered additional education.
- 18 public admonishments. In 1 case, the judge also agreed to additional training.
- 3 public warnings, all of which also ordered additional education.
Complaints against 9 additional judges or former judges received other public dispositions.
- 1 judge was placed on probation for 3 years with conditions
- 1 judge was ordered to reimburse the court $10,002.58 for unauthorized benefit payments
- 1 judge received a public caution with a dismissal without prejudice of multiple complaints
- 1 judge received a public letter of counsel
- 1 former judge was ordered to cease and desist from using misleading campaign material
- 1 former judge was found to have committed misconduct but no sanction was imposed because the judge was no longer in office
- 3 former judges were suspended from the practice of law for misconduct while judges
Click here for the state judicial discipline sanction information for 2016.
As noted, In 2017, there were 6 removals.
- Based on the judge’s voluntary resignation and agreement to be permanently ineligible to serve as a judge, the Arkansas Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission removed from office a judge who had been charged by the Commission and in a criminal information with failing to file state or federal income tax returns for many years before and after becoming a judge. Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission v. McCallister, Resignation and removal from office by agreement (Arkansas Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission December 15, 2017).
- Accepting the findings of fact and conclusions of law of the Judicial Standards Commission and granting its recommendation, the New Mexico Supreme Court permanently removed a magistrate for (1) continuing to have ex parte communications with litigants after being told multiple times to stop; (2) refusing to accept a prosecutor’s nolle prosequi; (3) abandoning her docket 1 day; and (4) arresting an innocent court clerk for criminal contempt. In the Matter of Johnston, Order (New Mexico Supreme Court October 23, 2017).
- On plenary review of the record, the New York Court of Appeals sustained the findings of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and concluded that the removal of a non-lawyer judge was warranted for (1) multiple efforts to influence the disposition of a traffic ticket received by his daughter and being discourteous to the prosecutor in the case and (2) in connection with the appeal of his order of restitution in a case, sending 8 letters to the county court that contained factual and legal arguments and biased and discourteous statements about the defendant and his attorney. In the Matter of Ayres, 85 N.E.3d 1011 (New York 2017).
- Affirming the Court of Judicial Discipline, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the removal of a judge for seeking the advice of another judge about her son’s case and acquiescing in his offer to communicate ex parte with the judge who was handling the case. In re Roca, 173 A.3d 1176 (Pennsylvania 2017). Click here for a longer post about the case.
- Affirming the Court of Judicial Discipline, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a judge’s removal for listening to another judge’s requests for favorable treatment for parties in 3 In re Segal, 173 A.3d 603 (Pennsylvania 2017). Click here for a longer post about the case.
- The Virginia Supreme Court removed a judge from office for contacting 2 potential witnesses prior to his wife’s trial on federal corruption charges. Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission v. Pomrenke, 806 S.E.2d 749 (Virginia 2017).
- In early 2017, several judicial ethics advisory committees answered inquiries from judges about whether they could participate in marches, contact their elected representatives, or engage in similar political activities as private citizens or respond as judges to other public officials’ misconceptions about the rule of law. Click here for a previous post about the opinions.
- A special Alabama Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of the Judiciary suspending Chief Justice Roy Moore from office without pay for the remainder of his term for entering an administrative order that directed all probate judges to follow Alabama’s marriage laws in disregard of a federal court injunction. Click here for a previous post about the case. Shortly after the decision, the Chief Justice resigned to run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Attorney General of the U.S.
- Following a de novo review, the Wyoming Supreme Court censured Judge Ruth Neely for her refusal to perform same-sex marriages and ordered that she either perform no marriage ceremonies or that she perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation. Inquiry Concerning Neely, 390 P.3d 728 (Wyoming 2017). Click here for a previous post about the case.
Top stories still developing:
- On June 16, the Oregon Supreme Court held oral arguments on the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability that Judge Vance Day be removed from office for a variety of misconduct. The Commission found that the judge had committed misconduct by (1) after the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was overturned, directing his staff to lie about his availability to same-sex couples asking to be married and direct them to another judge; (2) at 2 community college soccer games for his son’s team, trying to intimidate a referee by, for example, brandishing his judicial business card while threatening to complain to the referee’s employer about his job performance; (3) facilitating the handling of a firearm by a former Navy SEAL and convicted felon (identified as “BAS”) on active supervised probation in the veterans court over which the judge presided; (4) “enamored with BAS’s notoriety and his accomplishments in the military,” having unsolicited, often unwanted, personal, and completely inappropriate out-of-court contacts with him, including texting him, showing up at BAS’s home uninvited, taking him to a wedding, bringing BAS to his home, nurturing a relationship between BAS and his son, and facilitating favors for BAS such as rides and food; (5) securing funds for a “Hall of Heroes” (military art hung in his courtroom and in the surrounding public areas, including a donated portrait of Hitler) in part by soliciting financial support from attorneys who appeared before him and collecting the money, often in the courthouse and once during a status conference in his chambers; (6) making public statements to create the impression that the Commission proceeding was solely about his religious beliefs and refusal to conduct same-sex marriages to deflect attention away from his other misconduct; and (7) engaging in a pattern of dishonesty and untruthfulness during the Commission proceedings.
- In May, the ACLU of Kentucky, Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, Kentucky’s Fairness Campaign, and a law professor filed a complaint with the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission against Judge Mitchell Nance after he announced he would no longer hear adoption cases involving “homosexual parties” because he “as a matter of conscience” believes that “under no circumstance” would “the best interest of the child be promoted by the adoption by a practicing homosexual”
- On April 17, in an exercise of its general superintending control and to protect the integrity of the judicial system and “ensure that all are given a fair and impartial tribunal,” the Arkansas Supreme Court re-assigned all cases involving the death penalty or the state’s execution protocol, whether civil or criminal, that had been assigned to Judge Wendell Griffen and referred Judge Griffen to the Commission on Judicial Discipline & Disability. Judge Griffen has also filed a complaint about the order against the justices with the Commission. The Court’s order was prompted by Judge Griffen’s participation in 2 protests against the death penalty on Good Friday April 14 (he is also a pastor) and his entry of a temporary injunction that same day in a suit brought by a drug distributor against the use of its paralytic drug in 8 executions the state had scheduled in 10 days beginning Monday April 17 because its supply of the drug, which was one of the drugs used in executions, was about to expire.