In the case of judicial officials who are ethically compromised, justice is anything but blind. Take a recent case that went in front of the N.C. Supreme Court in which the justices ruled in connection to the ethics violation case of a district court judge charged with fixing at least 82 traffic tickets. After deliberating, the court chose to suspend the judge without pay for a period of 2 1/2 months.
The case against the district court judge reaches back to the year 2008; that’s when the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission says the judge in question entered improper judgments in traffic cases over which she had jurisdiction. The commission also alleged that the judge, who has been in office for a decade, engaged in what is known as “ex-parte communications,” which in this case means she improperly spoke to one side of the issue without the knowledge or consent of those on the opposing side.
The judge, who is paid just under $115,000 per year to sit on the bench, is also a professor at a major university. Some of the individuals for whom she fixed traffic citations were her law students. Others, said the court, were friends or attended the judge’s church.
Held to a higher standard
The Judicial Standards Commission is the North Carolina investigating body that handles, among other things, misconduct allegations against judges. The attorney that represented the Commission in this matter had asked the high court for a six-month suspension. It should be noted that the judge in question admitted to the allegations and cooperated with investigators.
But cooperative or not, there’s no excuse for her indiscretions. As a judicial official, she is expected to adhere to a higher standard than others, just as a police officer who breaks the law should also be punished more severely than the average person in the same set of circumstances. Clearly she knew she was acting improperly.
Scandals involving judges are not rare. However, the legal system designed for disciplining judges is greatly flawed in that it was created and continues to be administered by the very same people who fall under its jurisdiction. Self-policing is a concept that very rarely works to the favor of the public. When it comes to judges examining the actions of other judges, the system fails miserably.
A call to arms
A story, written and reported by Clair Johnson, which appeared in the Billings (Mont.) Gazette on March 10, 2012, explored the ratio of complaints against federal judges against the amount of disciplinary action meted out. Johnson, who interviewed a professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law named Stephen Gillers, quoted Gillers as saying that “Public discipline of federal judges is exceedingly rare.” In a recent case involving a U.S. District Court judge charged with behavior that violates the judicial Code of Conduct, a panel of other judges will review the judge’s acts and punishment.
While this judge’s offense—sending an offensive email—isn’t criminal in nature, most allegations of misconduct tied to the judiciary in this country are handled in an equally off-hand way. Other judicial individuals, including law enforcement officers, who stand accused of interfering with the fair processing of cases through the state court system, are typically charged as criminals. Misconduct allegations against a police officer can mean loss of livelihood or seniority.
I, for one, believe police who stray from their mission should be punished more harshly than the average person, but question why judges often receive what amounts to a slap on the wrist for comparable actions.
In my opinion, it’s time to reexamine the punishment of misconduct within the ranks of the judiciary. No profession should be allowed to act as its own judge and jury.