Judicial misconduct

Judicial misconduct is no laughing matter

Judges facing ethics complaints say and do the darndest things, sometimes bordering on humorous. More often though, judicial misconduct creates injustices for those coming before the court on serious matters from child custody to criminal drug cases.

Allegheny County (PA) Judge Mark Tranquilli was recently called on the carpet after a string of incidents. He now finds himself facing suspension for allegedly referring to a young Black juror as “Aunt Jemima” when speaking to the lawyers in the case in his chambers. He is also accused of telling a family in a custody case that he would split their baby like Solomon, a Biblical reference, “and sleep like a baby that night.”

The Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board filed a petition Aug. 12 asking that Tranquilli be suspended.

Judges are often called out for misconduct by both defendants and lawyers.

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Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the National Center for State Courts, compiles quarterly reports on judicial misconduct, comparing one year to the next, reviewing how many judges were disciplined, moved or suspended.

Cynthia Gray

“I am not a statistician, so I don’t do a lot of numbers crunching, but I do respond to requests for training from various states,” she said. Most recently, the hot topics have been on judges’ demeanor and on how they interact on social media. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought most training to a halt.

The center  provides research support for those boards that investigate judicial misconduct and it tracks opinions issued by ethics advisory committees. It does not conduct investigations itself.

Examples of judicial misconduct

In the Winter 2020 Misconduct Report, Gray has a section in the report entitled “What they said to or about criminal defendants that got them into trouble.”

• ‘Crackers” and “homeboys” to Caucasian and African American defendants — 6-month suspension of former judge’s law license for this and other misconduct.

• “Now, if I were to believe you were that stupid, James, I would just have Deputy Motelewski shoot you right now, because I know you’re not going to make it through life. Just tell me you knew it was stolen, that’s all.” The former judge received a 6-month suspension of his law license for this and other misconduct.

• “In fact, you’ve been such a headache, I was looking forward to putting you in the pen. And I would have paid 50 bucks to give you a beating before you went.” The former judge received a 6 -month suspension of his law license for this and other misconduct. 

• “I do hope you do fight for your life every minute of every day. And that would be the only reason that I would hope your life is any longer than six weeks.” The judge received a reprimand for this and other misconduct.

• “I guess it’s okay to urinate everywhere and on yourselves, be drunk in public in this town just because you don’t have any money.” The former judge was reprimanded for this and other misconduct.

“From 1980 through 2018, approximately 448 judges were removed from office as a result of state disciplinary proceedings,’’ the report says. “In 2019, two judges were removed. False or misleading statements by the judges were part of the misconduct in both cases.”

It remains to be seen what will come in the Tranquilli case.

The Pennsylvania misconduct board says Tranquilli “failed to promote public confidence in the judiciary; manifested bias or prejudice in the performance of his duties; and failed to conduct himself in a patient, dignified and courteous manner.”

“The Board has the burden of proving the filed charges by clear and convincing evidence” and Tranquilli has the right to respond to the charges, to see the evidence against him and to a public trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline.

According to the complaint, Tranquilli criticized a prosecutor in chambers for his choice of jurors, including the young kerchief-wearing Black woman he referred to as Aunt Jemima. He allegedly told the prosecutor, he “knew darn well” that when the juror “goes home to her baby daddy, he’s probably slinging heroin, too.”

In the custody case, Tranquilli used Ebonics and told the couple not to communicate like “and den da bitch done dis, and den da bitch done dat.” There were other comments listed, as well.

The judge was reassigned to administrative duties earlier this year after the prosecutor complained about his in-chambers conversation.

In another recent example of a judge accused of ethical misconduct, a formal investigation released 13 confirmed cases where a former Iowa judge had rulings ghostwritten by winning attorneys.

A 40-page review found that now-retired Judge Edward Jacobson used proposed orders from opposing attorneys as the final say, without notifying other parties. While there were only 13 confirmed cases, Jacobson admitted directing one of the counsels to write the final ruling after a contested trial “a couple hundred” times, according to the review, the Siouxland News reported.

Those affected in divorce court are being urged to file complaints with the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board.

Judicial misconduct through the years

The website Ballotpedia, a digital encyclopedia of American politics and elections, lists these examples of judicial misconduct over the years: 

• On Sept. 11, 2014, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the immediate removal of Twentieth Circuit Court Judge Mike Maggio from the bench. Maggio’s infractions included providing information about a confidential adoption and making various comments that were considered sexist, racist, perverse and homophobic.

Maggio left his most damaging comments on a Louisiana State University message board under the username “geauxjudge.” Those statements included: “OT ballers just gamble like Arabs, drink like Indians, and do the humpty-hump like rabbits” and “Women look at 2 bulges on a man, one in the front of the pants or second one in the back pocket. Whichever one is bigger they can do without the other.”

Maggio also provided details on the message board about actress Charlize Theron’s single-parent adoption, overseen by another judge. Maggio wrote: “I offered to be the baby daddy,” and “Did she get herself a black baby? Yep.”

Maggio was disrobed and agreed to never serve as a judge or run for a judicial office again.

• Judge John C. Murphy of Brevard County, FL, made headlines in June 2014, when he was recorded on camera challenging a public defender to a fistfight. Andrew Weinstock, the public defender had refused to have his client waive the right to a trial, which set off a number of heated remarks which included Murphy stating: “You know, if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now.” When Weinstock refused to sit down, Murphy then told him: “If you want to fight, let’s go out back and I’ll just beat your ass.”

Sounds of impact could be heard clearly on a recording, and initial reports accused Murphy of punching Weinstock in the face. Deputy Bryon Griffin said he saw the two of them “grabbing ahold of each other’s suitcoat, pushing each other back and forth.” He said he heard Murphy say, “Do you wanna f— with me, do you?” and Weinstock reply, “‘All right.” The deputy said he stepped in and separated the two.

• The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported in 2019 that the Florida Supreme Court suspended Broward Circuit Judge Gina Hawkins and released surveillance showing her choking and shaking an employee in a hallway. The Judicial Qualifications Commission said she damaged the public trust in the bench.

She told the commission her actions were in jest and that she never touched the man. The employee said the judge put both hands around his neck and shook him.

The judicial commission said it found Hawkins “not credible” when she said she did not remember physically touching the employee, even after she viewed the video.