Top judicial ethics and discipline stories of 2016

This post begins a series on the top judicial ethics and discipline stories of 2016, following up on a preliminary list published mid-year

One of the top stories, already described in the mid-year list, was the U.S. Supreme Court decision on disqualification of a state supreme court justice who had served as district attorney in a death penalty case and then participated in a review of a post-conviction decision years later.  Click here for a previous post on the case.

The top stories series will include up-dates on other stories identified in the mid-year list such as the resignation of an Arkansas judge charged with sexual misconduct, the Pennsylvania e-mail scandal, and federal court decisions about restrictions on judicial campaign conduct.  A high profile case was resolved several weeks ago when the California Commission on Judicial Performance closed its investigation of a judge for the sentence he gave a student athlete in a sexual assault case that prompted thousands of complaints.  Click here for the recent post on that case.  High profile stories that developed in the second half of 2016 and will be discussed in subsequent posts include the Kentucky judge who criticized the district attorney on Facebook and elsewhere and the Georgia constitutional amendment eliminating the Judicial Qualifications Commission in its current form and delegating the formation of a new Commission to the state legislature.  There will also be a post on “what they said that got them in trouble” in the second half of 2016, up-dating a previous post for the first half of the year.  The last post in the series will be a count of the public judicial discipline cases in 2016.

One of the continuing “hot button” topics in judicial ethics and discipline is same-sex marriage.  There are 3 cases still pending on that issue at the end of the year:

  • The Wyoming Supreme Court heard oral argument in April on a recommendation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics that a judge be removed from office for stating that she is unwilling to perform same-sex marriages.
  • The Oregon Supreme Court will hear oral argument in June on the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability that a judge be removed from office on numerous grounds including that he instructed his staff to lie to same-sex couples and say he was not available to perform their wedding ceremonies. One of the other grounds is that the judge had unsolicited, often unwanted, personal, and completely inappropriate out-of-court contacts with a former Navy SEAL under supervision in the judge’s veterans court because the judge was “enamored with” his notoriety and military accomplishments, and the judge facilitated the handling of a firearm by the former Navy SEAL, who was a convicted felon.  State criminal charges have now also been filed against the judge for the firearms offense.  The other grounds for the removal recommendation in the judicial discipline case include:  (1) at 2 community college soccer games for his son’s team, the judge tried to intimidate a referee by, for example, brandishing his judicial business card while threatening to complain to the referee’s employer; (2) either directly or under the guise of a non-profit organization, the judge obtained funds for a “Hall of Heroes” (military art hung in his courtroom and in the surrounding public areas) 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; (3) the judge made public statements to create the impression that the Commission proceeding was solely regarding his refusal to conduct same-sex marriages to deflect attention away from his other misconduct; and (4) the judge engaged in a pattern of untruthfulness during the Commission proceedings.
  • Chief Justice Roy Moore has filed a notice of appeal from the decision of the Court of the Judiciary that he be suspended without pay until the end of his term for directing or appearing to direct all Alabama probate judges to follow Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban in complete disregard of a federal court injunction. Click here for a previous post.  The other members of the Court recused themselves from the appeal, and a panel of 7 retired district or circuit court judges chosen at random will sit as a substitute Alabama Supreme Court.