Initiation of the Process
Judicial disciplinary cases, most typically, are initiated by the receipt of a written, verified complaint. Commission staff screens written complaints. Complaints raising only issues for appeal, legal error, and complaints that are unfounded or frivolous are dismissed summarily by the Commission. The judge receives a copy of the complaint and notice from the Commission of the summary dismissal. The complainant, too, is notified of the dismissal and the grounds for that decision. This stage of the process is confidential. The Commission does not reveal the fact that the complaint has been received, and discusses its resolution only with the judge; however, the judge may waive confidentiality, or the Commission may choose to respond to publicly disseminated statements about a complaint.
The Commission need not rely upon the receipt of a written complaint in order to proceed. Some investigations into possible misconduct are initiated on the Commission's own motion.
Complaints which are not unfounded or frivolous, as well as those brought by the Commission, proceed to an inquiry. Usually, the judge is asked to respond to the allegations of the complaint. Other confidential inquiries may be made by the staff or by the Commission members. If the judge's response, or other inquiry, reveals that no misconduct occurred, the Commission notifies the judge of that fact and dismisses the complaint. The complainant, too, is notified of the dismissal and the grounds for that decision. Rules of confidentiality prohibit the Commission from divulging to the complainant or the public the details of the Commissions' inquiry.
If the inquiry reveals relatively minor misconduct which does not warrant further investigation, the Commission may dismiss the case, often with an advisory or cautionary letter to the judge. The rules of confidentiality still apply, and the Commission does not reveal the nature of the inquiry or the resolution reached. In these cases, the Commission notifies the complainant that appropriate action was taken.
If the inquiry indicates that misconduct occurred which, at least at this stage, cannot be resolved informally, the Commission may vote to proceed to investigation. At this time, the Commission must provide the judge with notice of investigation, with the complaint, and with the specific allegations. The judge is afforded a reasonable opportunity to respond. In the course of an investigation, the Commission may exercise subpoena powers, may hold private conferences with the judge, and may employ investigators. The investigation remains confidential.
If the investigation reveals no misconduct occurred, the Commission will dismiss the complaint. Or, if the investigation indicates that a violation occurred which does not warrant further proceedings, the Commission still may resolve the complaint with a private caution.
Read examples of dismissed complaints and those resolved by private cautions in this or in prior fiscal years.
If, after an investigation, the Commission finds probable cause that the judge has committed ethical misconduct, the Commission may vote that formal, public charges are warranted. Occasionally, the Commission and the judge agree to a Commission Admonition in lieu of charges and a formal proceeding. A Commission Admonition is a public document disseminated by the Commission describing the judge's misconduct. Read Commission Admonitions Link.
If the Commission files formal charges, the proceeding is public, and the Commission no longer may informally resolve the case. After charges are filed, the judge may answer within twenty days. Both parties have discovery rights in accordance with the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure. Instead of proceeding to a hearing, the Commission and the judge may enter into a settlement agreement, which is tendered to the Supreme Court for its approval. If the Court approves the agreement, it publishes a disciplinary opinion.
After charges have been filed and the judge has answered, the Court appoints Masters, three active or retired judges, who preside in the event the case proceeds to a hearing. At the hearing, the judge has the right to counsel, the right to call and examine witnesses, and the right to compel the production of documents. The Indiana Rules of Evidence generally apply. The proceedings are open to the public and are reported verbatim.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the Masters prepare and transmit to the Court a report with their recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law. If the Masters find that the Commission has proved its charges by clear and convincing evidence, they may recommend a sanction. Then, within thirty days, the Commission files its recommendation to the Court, including any specific objections to the Masters' report. The judge then has thirty days to file a petition with any objections and arguments. The Commission may file a reply brief within twenty days.
Supreme Court Resolution
If the Supreme Court concludes that the judge committed ethical misconduct, it determines the appropriate sanction. The Court is not bound by the Masters' report, but gives it deference. The Court may issue a Private Reprimand, a Public Reprimand or greater sanctions, from a suspension from office without pay to removal from office. In the most serious cases, sanctions against the judge as an attorney, including suspension or disbarment are possible. Typically, the judge is ordered to pay the costs of the proceeding. Discipline imposed by the Court, other than a private reprimand, is reported in a Supreme Court opinion. Access citations and Supreme Court Judicial Disciplinary Opinions Link.
Read more about the judicial disciplinary process: