Judicial misconduct has often hit headlines, from former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's order for lower state courts to ignore the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, to a Texas judge who instructed a jury that God had told him a sex trafficking defendant was innocent. But the problem is widespread — and judges are rarely held to full account.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that 90 percent of state and local judges who were disciplined for misconduct are allowed to keep their jobs — sometimes for egregious offenses.
"In the first comprehensive accounting of judicial misconduct nationally, Reuters reviewed 1,509 cases from the last dozen years – 2008 through 2019 – in which judges resigned, retired or were publicly disciplined following accusations of misconduct," reported Michael Berens and John Shiffman. "In addition, reporters identified another 3,613 cases from 2008 through 2018 in which states disciplined wayward judges but kept hidden from the public key details of their offenses – including the identities of the judges themselves."
"All told, 9 of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct," said the report. "They included a California judge who had sex in his courthouse chambers, once with his former law intern and separately with an attorney; a New York judge who berated domestic violence victims; and a Maryland judge who, after his arrest for driving drunk, was allowed to return to the bench provided he took a Breathalyzer test before each appearance."
Another case highlighted by the report was Alabama Judge Les Hayes, who improperly sentenced hundreds of Black people to jail over traffic fines: "Marquita Johnson, who was locked up in April 2012, says the impact of her time in jail endures today. Johnson’s three children were cast into foster care while she was incarcerated. One daughter was molested, state records show. Another was physically abused."
Hayes was suspended after an investigation in 2016, but not fired, and later resumed his duties as a judge. He will retire from the bench this week, and told reporters he was "very remorseful" and "never thought I was doing something wrong."
According to the report, every state has a judicial commission process for investigating misconduct, but "the clout of these commissions is limited, and their authority differs from state to state. To remove a judge, all but a handful of states require approval of a panel that includes other judges. And most states seldom exercise the full extent of those disciplinary powers. As a result, the system tends to err on the side of protecting the rights and reputations of judges while overlooking the impact courtroom wrongdoing has on those most affected by it: people like Marquita Johnson."
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