Last week, I shared articles about two judges and what made them great and kept them going. But judges do go bad, and make big mistakes. Ethical lapses, even criminal mistakes. (They make mistakes about the law, too – retired Missouri state court judge and mystery writer Bill Hopkins will talk about that here this fall, when his first mystery, Courting Murder, debuts.)
A state court example: A Montana justice of the peace developed a drug addiction. Worse, he went “doctor shopping,” getting methadone prescriptions from three doctors in different communities. News accounts in the Billings Gazette report that he resigned from the bench after being charged with 34 felony counts of fraudulently obtaining dangerous drugs.
34 counts. Criminy.
State court judges can be disciplined for misconduct on and off the bench. State court judges are disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission (or local equivalent – remember, terms and procedures vary state by state), typically a regulatory commission under the auspices of the state Supreme Court. Most commissions include a mix of members from the judiciary, the bar (lawyers), and the public. A complaint triggers an investigation, which will be dismissed if the judge is exonerated. If not, the judge may be disciplined for committing willful misconduct in office, or violating the state’s Canons of Judicial Ethics. In Montana, those Canons expressly prohibit “conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute, or impropriety.”
There’s a range of possible discipline, from private admonition to forced retirement. Local options vary, of course, and will depend on the severity of the conduct, any prior incidents, and aggravating or mitigating factors.
What will happen in this case? Anybody’s guess. The judge’s defense lawyer, a hard-hitting fellow, hints at a plea agreement. The judge has already resigned. If he hadn’t, and is convicted, he’d likely be removed from office. If he’s convicted after trial, or pleads guilty to any felonies, he’ll be disbarred as well. Felony convictions, of course, are Very Bad, and result in all but automatic disbarment. (Lawyer discipline is discussed in detail in Books, Crooks & Counselors.)
A federal court example: A federal judge used his official email account to forward a racist joke about the president. He acknowledged his inappropriate behavior, but rejected calls to resign. Federal judges are appointed for life. The incident is being investigated for potential misconduct, which could lead to impeachment. If tried and convicted, he would be removed from office. But as the law professor quoted in this Reuters story notes, that’s highly unlikely. His behavior was incredibly stupid–and calls his judgment into question–but isn’t the type of misconduct likely to result in removal. On the other hand, if a state court judge had done the same thing, local reaction might force his resignation.
Judges are as human as the rest of us. If a judge is a major or minor character in your story, you can use major or minor misconduct in many ways. Use it make the judge more human, to lead to more crime, or to trigger a cover-up. Use it to make her vulnerable to blackmail, if her actions are discovered. Use it to put your lawyer, cop, or PI protagonist in a quandary, unsure what to do with the information. The possibilities are, like all human failings, endless.
Update: The federal judge initially announced that he would take senior status, but the Billings Gazette reported in April 2013 that he would retire fully on May 3, following a March 15 order in the judicial conduct investigation, which is confidential pending an appeal.