Saturday, March 28, 2009

When Judicial Misconduct Happens in Indiana, Public Action is Taken Against the Bad Judge Only 1% of the Time

Indiana Law - Feature on discipline of Indiana judges

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette published this feature story today on judicial discipline in Indiana. Some quotes:

Of the more than 1,000 allegations of judicial misconduct investigated by a state panel in the past four fiscal years, public discipline was taken against judges only slightly more than 1 percent of the time. But dozens of private cautions - or confidential letters of warning - were issued by the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which also dismissed 85 percent of the complaints.

Although lawmakers are subject to public ethics challenges and discipline against police officers is open, state law and a Supreme Court rule keep the vast majority of complaints against judges under wraps. * * *

[N]early all cases are disposed of before the public gets a chance to look at them - either by a flat dismissal or a private scolding. Of 1,013 allegations or complaints filed the past four fiscal years, 801 were immediately dismissed.

[Meg Babcock, attorney for the qualifications commission,] said this number is so high because many of the allegations are actually issues for legal appeal, such as when a defendant is unhappy with a ruling or sentence. The commission focuses only on judicial conduct.

Some cases continue to an inquiry stage - 185 in recent years. During that stage, the judge might be contacted and some basic information gathered. The seven-member commission then decides whether to dismiss the case or move to a formal investigation.

Of those 185 cases, 62 were dismissed and 82 ended in private cautions. Those are essentially letters that warn judges their behavior might be on or over the line of ethical conduct.

"They are usually a minor discretion by a judge," said Ann Borne, a Fort Wayne teacher who served two terms on the commission under former governors Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon.
"Whether it stays private partly has a lot to do with the attitude of the judge," she said. "Sometimes the judge is very defensive and that means we have to go further and look for patterns or problems. If there are no priors and they feel remorseful, we may go ahead and do the private caution."

Indiana isn't much different from the rest of the country, where most judicial commissions' proceedings only become public at the point of a charge or when the judge is disciplined.Here is the website of the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications. The right column of the page provides links to a number of useful items, including Activities, which leads to detailed annual reports for each year. The most recent report covers July 1, 2002 through June 30, 2003 and provides a complete review of the complaints received and actions taken during that period.

Also of interest are the links to: Advisory Opinions, which cover questions involving law practices of part-time judges, fundraising activites, nepotism, etc.; and to Disciplinary Function, an overview of the Commission's disciplinary process.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 30, 2004 12:39 PM
Posted to Indiana Law

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