Traverse City Record-Eagle

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October 14, 2012

Supreme Court commission to hear judges' ethics charges

Ottawa, Wayne county judges face charges

LANSING — It has been a tough year so far for some judges.

In Ottawa County, District Judge Kenneth Post faces ethics charges alleging he failed to follow the law, behaved inappropriately toward a defense lawyer and "trivialized" the seriousness of a criminal case.

Post acknowledged in legal papers that his courtroom comments to the lawyer were "sarcastic and possibly demeaning," that he failed to act courteously and "may have made an error of law," but denied any serious violations of the state's Code of Judicial Conduct.

In Wayne County, Circuit Judge Deborah Adams faces ethics charges in which the Judicial Tenure Commission accused her of making misrepresentations under oath and forgery in her own divorce case.

She denies any misconduct, and her hearing has concluded, with a decision expected soon, said commission Executive Director Paul Fischer. Post's hearing is scheduled for Dec. 17-18.

If the charges are upheld, they could face censure, suspension or removal from office.

The commission is an investigatory and prosecutorial arm of the Michigan Supreme Court with oversight responsibility for 1,259 state court judges.

Meanwhile this year, the Supreme Court has bounced two judges from the bench.

It removed Jackson District Judge James Justin for unethical and illegal behavior, including fixing tickets for his wife, his staff and himself.

Justin's "multitudinous acts of proved misconduct sketch a common theme," the Supreme Court said. "He failed to follow the law, apparently believing that it simply did not apply to him."

He now faces felony charges of misconduct in office, a crime that carries a potential maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The Supreme Court also removed Inkster District Judge Sylvia James for financial, administrative and professional misconduct, including allegations of nepotism and misuse of court funds.

James is running in the Nov. 6 election to regain her seat now held by an interim appointee, Judge Sabrina Johnson.

Such high-profile cases are the exception, not the rule, because most grievances against judges are thrown out or dealt with in private.

The tenure Commission has logged a steady litany of complaints — technically requests for investigation — in recent years.

Last year, it received 546 requests for investigation, down from 638 in 2010, according to its annual report. Litigants, including inmates, filed 90 percent of them.

"A substantial percentage alleged legal error not involving misconduct or expressed dissatisfaction with a judge's discretionary handling of judicial duties," the report said. Other complaints involved people outside the commission's authority, such as former judges and federal judges.

Last year the commission issued 9 private letters of caution, admonition or explanation — all of them confidential.

Even though details of the letters are private, including the names of the judges and courts involved, the commission's latest annual report provides evidence of the wide array of verified misconduct.

For example, judges were privately chastised for:

n failing to decide a child custody and visitation case for more than two years, a delay that "likely exacerbated the process of reuniting the parent and child."

n refusing to let a litigant consult with his lawyer and "badgered the litigant with questions."

n calling a litigant angry and bitter, and a "baby." The judge also said, "Please get out of my courtroom; I — I don't want to look at you."

n making inappropriate statements, including suggesting that litigant have her teeth "fixed," and asking if she was "a little self-conscious" about them. The commission also found "somewhat disparaging" the judge's comments about a litigant getting his "brains knocked out in a bar" and "feeding" alcohol to a brain injury.

n failing to disclose that the judge was the landlord for a lawyer who regularly appeared in the same court.

n mishandling the appointment of a lawyer for a criminal defendant. "The commission noted that the judge's lack of knowledge regarding the matter was somewhat remarkable, and cause for concern," the report said.

n refusing to allow a police officer to retain or photocopy evidence in a felony case and ordering the evidence returned to the defendant.

n repeatedly misrepresenting evidence, not following the law and considering out-of-court information in parental rights cases.

n pressuring a candidate to withdrawing from a judicial campaign by phoning the candidate's law firm partners. "The judge's colleague and friend was the only other person in the judicial race."

n filing for a homestead exemption for property taxes on two residences although the law allows the exemption for only one primary residence.

n using court letterhead to solicit charitable donations while running for re-election. "The personal solicitation of funds for a charitable cause created the appearance that the organization was being used as a campaign vehicle for free publicity," the commission said.

Fischer, the commission executive director, said he hopes its work "has an impact, not only on judges but on the public as well," including raising awareness that the state has an organization that can take action if judges misbehave.

Eric Freedman directs and writes for Michigan State University's Capital News Service.

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