Sunday, January 03, 2010

Federal judges don't do much judging when it comes to misconduct among their peers

I've never paid close attention to how federal judges police misconduct among their ranks, but a Houston Chronicle story by Lise Olsen published on New Year's Eve gave an excellent account of the process and problems related to secrecy and an apparent lack of accountability ("Judging the judges: Veil of secrecy stirring calls for change," Dec. 31):
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.
According to the Chron's national analysis:
  • 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.
Olsen also compiled a list of suggested reforms, including:
  • 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.


ckikerintulia said...

Federal judges are appointed; all too frequently they are political appointments. There should be a non-partisan, non-political--really there's no such thing as non-political--avenue for removing or disciplining them for misconduct. Petition and referendum perhaps? Of course we ordinary peons going about our daily business are woefully misinformed about what federal judges, or state district judges for that matter, are up to. We need folks like Grits to inform us. The major media folks are too busy with stuff like Tiger Woods to fill that function.

Texas Lawyer said...

I think the recent scuffle over a certain colorful judge in Galveston lays the groundwork for a piece like this (query - would he still be on the bench if the victim didn't have an attorney?)

But Kozinski's situation seems totally different. He explained the situation and the media lambasted him. It seemed like an honest mistake for which he was terribly sorry.

Not sure it justifies additional bureaucracy.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Lise Olsen at the Chronicle for yet another fascinating article on the workings of the judicial system - she's covered so many areas now, and seems to put exponentially more thought and effort into her work than the run-of-the-mill journalists out there. Her exposes of inadequate writ lawyers in capital cases have been particularly noteworthy.

Grandmom said...

The 2 Yogurt Shop defendants have been exonerated by DNA after spending 9 years in prison or on death row. The only evidence proving their guilt were 2 coerced confessions. During one trial the judge denied the defense witnesses (one of them expert) who could prove coercion. Isn't this judicial misconduct?

Anonymous said...

I know this story was about federal judges but since the last commenter mentioned a Texas case I'll throw my 2 cents in. Apparently, when it comes to district judges in Texas many things that you would think would be judicial misconduct goes unpunished. Conspiring with the DA's office to set ridiculously high bonds in violation of a defendant's consitutional rights, conspiring with the DA's office to convict innocent people in a high profile case by making up exceptions to the hearsay rule, allowing non-experts to provide expert testimony and denying the defendant his legal right to present a defense apparently do not constitute judicial misconduct in Texas. If that were true Jack Skeen would not be on the bench. By the way, this corrupt judge is seeking reelection with the backing of Smith County corrupt political machine. Someone has been brave enough to run against him in the primary. But, with the help of the local newspaper, Skeen has so many Smith County voters fooled he'll probably be reelected. It is going to be interesting to see what the 14th circuit does with the Mineola Swinger's Club case. Will they approve of Skeen's obviously biased misconduct? Or will they appropriately slap him down. His conduct in that case was so agregious he should be removed from office. He made no attempt to appear unbiased, made up exceptions to the hearsay rule that don't exist, allowed non experts to provide expert testimony, refused to allow Patrick Kelly to present his defense and violated numerous other rules of evidence and law in a blatant attempt to make sure the DA's office won what was a very weak case (one that the DA and a grand jury in the county were legal venue actually rests had already rejected). Unfortunately, it appears that that Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct is as useless and impotent and the Commission on Jail Standards.