|Marquita Johnson (Reuters)
It must be impossible to write an article about court corruption without focusing on at least one Alabama judge. That seems to be the take-home lesson from a piece at Reuters under the headline, "Special Report: Thousands of U.S. judges who broke laws, oaths remained on the bench." Heck, even the dateline is from Alabama. Write reporters Michael Berens and John Shiffman:
MONTGOMERY, Alabama (Reuters) - Judge Les Hayes once sentenced a single mother to 496 days behind bars for failing to pay traffic tickets. The sentence was so stiff it exceeded the jail time Alabama allows for negligent homicide.In our experience, judges often get away with such brazen unlawfulness; Hayes did not:
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.
“Judge Hayes took away my life and didn’t care how my children suffered,” said Johnson, now 36. “My girls will never be the same.”
Fellow inmates found her sentence hard to believe. “They had a nickname for me: The Woman with All the Days,” Johnson said. “That’s what they called me: The Woman with All the Days. There were people who had committed real crimes who got out before me.”
In 2016, the state agency that oversees judges charged Hayes with violating Alabama’s code of judicial conduct. According to the Judicial Inquiry Commission, Hayes broke state and federal laws by jailing Johnson and hundreds of other Montgomery residents too poor to pay fines. Among those jailed: a plumber struggling to make rent, a mother who skipped meals to cover the medical bills of her disabled son, and a hotel housekeeper working her way through college.
How did Hayes explain such judicial hackery? He blamed it on, well, ignorance of the law -- and he was a judge:
Hayes, a judge since 2000, admitted in court documents to violating 10 different parts of the state’s judicial conduct code. One of the counts was a breach of a judge’s most essential duty: failing to “respect and comply with the law.”
Despite the severity of the ruling, Hayes wasn’t barred from serving as a judge. Instead, the judicial commission and Hayes reached a deal. The former Eagle Scout would serve an 11-month unpaid suspension. Then he could return to the bench.
Until he was disciplined, Hayes said in an interview with Reuters, “I never thought I was doing something wrong.”
This week, Hayes is set to retire after 20 years as a judge. In a statement to Reuters, Hayes said he was “very remorseful” for his misdeeds.
Community members are angry that Hayes was allowed to retire rather than being forcefully kicked off the bench:
“He should have been fired years ago,” said Willie Knight, pastor of North Montgomery Baptist Church. “He broke the law and wanted to get away with it. His sudden retirement is years too late.”
Hayes is among thousands of state and local judges across America who were allowed to keep positions of extraordinary power and prestige after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold, a Reuters investigation found.
Judges have made racist statements, lied to state officials and forced defendants to languish in jail without a lawyer – and then returned to the bench, sometimes with little more than a rebuke from the state agencies overseeing their conduct.
Rogue judges are a problem around the country, Reuters found:
Recent media reports have documented failures in judicial oversight in South Carolina, Louisiana and Illinois. Reuters went further.
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. 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, Reuters determined. 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.
The news agency’s findings reveal an “excessively” forgiving judicial disciplinary system, said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who writes about judicial ethics. Although punishment short of removal from the bench is appropriate for most misconduct cases, Gillers said, the public “would be appalled at some of the lenient treatment judges get” for substantial transgressions.
Just from the past year alone:
In Utah, a judge texted a video of a man’s scrotum to court clerks. He was reprimanded but remains on the bench.
In Indiana, three judges attending a conference last spring got drunk and sparked a 3 a.m. brawl outside a White Castle fast-food restaurant that ended with two of the judges shot. Although the state supreme court found the three judges had “discredited the entire Indiana judiciary,” each returned to the bench after a suspension.
In Texas, a judge burst in on jurors deliberating the case of a woman charged with sex trafficking and declared that God told him the defendant was innocent. The offending judge received a warning and returned to the bench. The defendant was convicted after a new judge took over the case.
“There are certain things where there should be a level of zero tolerance,” the jury foreman, Mark House, told Reuters. The judge should have been fined, House said, and kicked off the bench. “There is no justice, because he is still doing his job.”
Judicial misconduct specialists say such behavior has the potential to erode trust in America’s courts and, absent tough consequences, could give judges license to behave with impunity.
“When you see cases like that, the public starts to wonder about the integrity and honesty of the system,” said Steve Scheckman, a lawyer who directed Louisiana’s oversight agency and served as deputy director of New York’s. “It looks like a good ol’ boys club.”
That’s how local lawyers viewed the case of a longtime Alabama judge who concurrently served on the state’s judicial oversight commission. The judge, Cullman District Court’s Kim Chaney, remained on the bench for three years after being accused of violating the same nepotism rules he was tasked with enforcing on the oversight commission. In at least 200 cases, court records show, Judge Chaney chose his own son to serve as a court-appointed defense lawyer for the indigent, enabling the younger Chaney to earn at least $105,000 in fees over two years.
In February, months after Reuters repeatedly asked Chaney and the state judicial commission about those cases, he retired from the bench as part of a deal with state authorities to end the investigation.
Tommy Drake, the lawyer who first filed a complaint against Chaney in 2016, said he doubts the judge would have been forced from the bench if Reuters hadn’t examined the case.
“You know the only reason they did anything about Chaney is because you guys started asking questions,” Drake said. “Otherwise, he’d still be there.”
The mainstream media (MSM) rarely takes a look at crooked judges, so Reuters deserves huge props for tackling the subject. I would love to see them do an expanded version of the story, and I could give them the names of dozens of victims, with details about cheat jobs. After all, I'm "The guy who got arrested for blogging." That was MY nickname among inmates at the Shelby County (AL) Jail.
Here is what the University of Virginia's Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression said about Judge Claud Neilson, the hatchet man on my case:
The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, based at the University of Virginia, has been issuing "Jefferson Muzzles Awards" for 24 years to those who have wantonly trampled First Amendment rights.
Claud Neilson, a retired circuit judge the Alabama Supreme Court specially appointed to hear a lawsuit brought against me by Republican political figures Rob Riley and Liberty Duke, was among eight individuals or entities to receive "Muzzles Awards" for 2014-15.
How bad is the disciplinary system for judges? Real bad, reports Reuters:
State and local judges draw little scrutiny even though their courtrooms are the bedrock of the American criminal justice system, touching the lives of millions of people every year.
The country’s approximately 1,700 federal judges hear 400,000 cases annually. The nearly 30,000 state, county and municipal court judges handle a far bigger docket: more than 100 million new cases each year, from traffic to divorce to murder. Their titles range from justice of the peace to state supreme court justice. Their powers are vast and varied – from determining whether a defendant should be jailed to deciding who deserves custody of a child.
Each U.S. state has an oversight agency that investigates misconduct complaints against judges. The authority of the oversight agencies is distinct from the power held by appellate courts, which can reverse a judge’s legal ruling and order a new trial. Judicial commissions cannot change verdicts. Rather, they can investigate complaints about the behavior of judges and pursue discipline ranging from reprimand to removal.
Few experts dispute that the great majority of judges behave responsibly, respecting the law and those who appear before them. And some contend that, when judges do falter, oversight agencies are effective in identifying and addressing the behavior. “With a few notable exceptions, the commissions generally get it right,” said Keith Swisher, a University of Arizona law professor who specializes in judicial ethics.
Others disagree. They note that 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.
Reuters scoured thousands of state investigative files, disciplinary proceedings and court records from the past dozen years to quantify the personal toll of judicial misconduct. The examination found at least 5,206 people who were directly affected by a judge’s misconduct. The victims cited in disciplinary documents ranged from people who were illegally jailed to those subjected to racist, sexist and other abusive comments from judges in ways that tainted the cases.
The number is a conservative estimate. The tally doesn’t include two previously reported incidents that affected thousands of defendants and prompted sweeping reviews of judicial conduct.
In Pennsylvania, the state examined the convictions of more than 3,500 teenagers sentenced by two judges. The judges were convicted of taking kickbacks as part of a scheme to fill a private juvenile detention center. In 2009, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appointed senior judge Arthur Grim to lead a victim review, and the state later expunged criminal records for 2,251 juveniles. Grim told Reuters that every state should adopt a way to compensate victims of judicial misconduct.
“If we have a system that holds a wrongdoer accountable but we fail to address the victims, then we are really losing sight of what a justice system should be all about,” Grim said.
In another review underway in Ohio, state public defender Tim Young is scrutinizing 2,707 cases handled by a judge who retired in 2018 after being hospitalized for alcoholism. Mike Benza, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University whose students are helping identify victims, compared the work to current investigations into police abuse of power. “You see one case and then you look to see if it’s systemic,” he said.
The review, which has been limited during the coronavirus pandemic, may take a year. But Young said the time-consuming task is essential because “a fundamental injustice may have been levied against hundreds or thousands of people.”