Just 12 chief federal judges wield almost exclusive power over secret misconduct investigations of more than 2,000 fellow jurists — though some have themselves been accused of botching reviews or committing ethical blunders, according to a Houston Chronicle review.
At least four current or former chief circuit judges have been the subject of recent high-profile complaints about their behavior; one posted photos of naked women painted to look like cows and other graphic images on his publicly accessible Web site; another manipulated the outcome of a vote in a death penalty case.
Not one faced formal discipline.
Nationwide, the integrity of the federal judicial misconduct system relies heavily on chief judges. Each oversees complaints — more than 6,000 in the last 10 years — against all circuit, district, senior, bankruptcy and magistrate judges in multi-state regions called circuits. ...
In seven circuits, according to the Chronicle analysis, supervising judges took no public disciplinary action at all in the last decade, meaning not a single federal judge faced any sanctions in 29 states with more than 875 full-time federal judges, despite thousands of complaints.
Defenders of the system, like Scott Gant, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, argue that under-enforcement is a small price to pay for strong federal judges.
- 3,357: Number of misconduct complaints filed nationwide between fiscal years 2003 and 2008.
- 98 percent: Complaints dismissed.
- 2 percent: Concluded with apologies, corrective actions or events
- Less than 1 percent: Referred to a special investigating committee
- 4: Number of judges formally disciplined.
- Creating an inspector general who reports to the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice.
- Establishing disciplinary committees or specially trained ombudsmen, instead of relying on busy chief judges.
- Changing laws to make more disciplinary documents public, including complaints, investigative reports, judges' responses, and hearing records after complaints are verified.
- Posting all decisions on the Internet. Four out of 12 circuit courts already do; others are available only at the circuits' courthouses.
- Standardizing decisions. In 2008, the Judicial Conference of the United States adopted uniform rules for handling disciplinary matters to replace a hodgepodge of procedures. In the works is a national decision database.
- Providing more hot line counseling services for judges. Only the 9th Circuit currently offers this help to judges with financial crises, addictions, disabilities and other problems.