The Commission considers each complaint at bi-monthly meetings. It makes a final decision whether a complaint should be dismissed or whether the judge did commit a violation warranting a private caution or formal charges. Complaints and their dispositions are confidential unless the Commission votes to file formal disciplinary charges. In these cases, the Commission may issue a public Commission Admonition with the judge's consent or it may file formal charges for the Supreme Court's ultimate determination whether misconduct occurred and, if so, what sanction is appropriate.
Examples of Dismissed Complaints
Of the approximately four hundred allegations of judicial misconduct brought to the Commission's attention during the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the Commission dismissed 165 complaints, because in the Commission's view, the judge's conduct was not a violation, the allegation was unfounded, or both. Another 187 complaints were dismissed this fiscal year on the same grounds after Commission staff conducted preliminary inquiries, such as by contacting witnesses or lawyers and reviewing court documents. Examples of dismissed complaints in this or in prior fiscal years follow:
- A defendant complained that the judge acted unethically and violated courthouse security rules when the judge allowed the prosecutor to bring into the courtroom the weapon the defendant allegedly used in the commission of his crime.
- A party in a divorce case complained that the judge modified custody and ordered the complaining party to begin payments on a child support arrearage.
- A defendant alleged he was being held without bond after he was sentenced. Court documents, and the complainant's attorney, showed that the defendant was being held on other charges.
- A litigant complained that the judge should have disqualified on the basis that the litigant once dated the judge's spouse's distant relative whom the judge did not know.
- A defendant in a child molestation case protested that the judge found his lack of remorse as an aggravating factor at sentencing after the defendant stated that, although he recognized society "had a problem" with his relationship with his young victim, he simply was in love and was not a predator.
- The mother of a party to a custody dispute stated she sat through a hearing and felt her son's lawyer presented their case very well; therefore, she complained that the judge must not have been listening to the evidence.
Examples of Complaints Resolved by Confidential Cautions
Complaints not dismissed summarily are investigated by Commission staff. Typically, the judge is asked to respond to a series of questions, and staff conducts appropriate interviews and reviews pertinent documents. After investigation, the Commission may conclude that no misconduct occurred, or that the judge did deviate from the Code of Judicial Conduct. The Commission does not treat every transgression as warranting formal discipline, and often resolves complaints privately with a written caution to the judge. Factors taken into consideration include the judge's acknowledgement of the mistake, the relative severity of the misconduct, the impact of the mistake on the complainant or on the public's trust, and whether or not the Code violation was intentional or inadvertent. In this fiscal year, the Commission sent private cautions to seven judges for a variety of Code violations. For example:
- A judge failed to issue a dissolution decree for several months. After an inquiry, the Commission found that the judge's heavy caseload and health problems contributed to the delay, that the judge did not habitually delay cases, and that the judge apologized and had taken administrative measures to ensure another delay did not occur.
- A town court employee also was an employee of the town in another capacity, creating conflicts of interests for the court. The Commission cautioned the judge that he was responsible for the integrity of the court even if he did not personally hire the employee.
- A judge lost his temper and verbally berated another guest at a social gathering. The judge immediately reported this incident to the Commission and acknowledged the injudiciousness of the behavior.
- The judge was the subject of two investigations about inappropriate courtroom demeanor. The Commission sent a caution and advised the judge it would file charges if another similar event occurred.
- A judge based a sentencing decision, in part, on information obtained from a court employee. During the inquiry, the judge volunteered this fact, knowing the Commission would conclude the judge unintentionally had engaged in an improper ex parte contact.
- A judge took personal offense when a lawyer asked him to disqualify from a case and, in his order granting the request, made injudicious comments about the integrity of the lawyer.
Complaints Resulting in Public Commission Admonitions
If, after an investigation, the Commission members believe that serious misconduct occurred requiring action beyond a private caution, the members consider whether formal disciplinary charges should be filed. If a majority of the Commission votes to file charges, the Commission may offer the judge the opportunity to accept a Commission Admonition instead of facing formal charges. Typically, this occurs when there are few facts in dispute, the judge acknowledges the misconduct and does not have a significant history of violations, and the Commission believes that the case, if ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, likely would be resolved by a reprimand. The Admonitions are public documents, the only Commission action, short of filing charges, which normally is made public.
Cases Resulting in Formal Charges
After the Commission votes to file formal charges, and when a Commission Admonition is not an adequate resolution, the Commission files public charges of misconduct with the Clerk of the Supreme Court. The judge may answer the charges within twenty days, after which the Supreme Court appoints three Masters - judges from throughout the state - to preside over an evidentiary hearing. Some of these cases are resolved by settlement agreement without a hearing; that is, the Commission and the judge agree to the facts and to the appropriate sanction and ask the Court to adopt the settlement and issue the appropriate order or opinion.
If a case cannot be settled, the Masters preside over a hearing. After the hearing, the Masters submit a report to the Court indicating whether they believe the Commission proved its case by clear and convincing evidence. The Commission and the judge then have an opportunity to file responses. Ultimately, the Supreme Court determines whether misconduct occurred and, if the judge did commit misconduct, what sanction should be imposed. If the Commission proved misconduct, the Court may issue a Private Reprimand (a public document, but not a published opinion) or any other sanction ranging from a Public Reprimand to unpaid suspensions from office, to removal from office, as well as fines and costs of the proceeding. If the Court removes a judge from office, it may also at that time impose sanctions against the judge as a lawyer, including disbarment.