October 10, 2012

Judges Behaving Badly

Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has bad days. But when you’ve got “judge” in your job title, chances are your bad day is going to make headlines. Here are a couple of cases that crossed my virtual desktop where misbehaving judges got caught, in one way or another.

The first, from Kentucky (via the ABA Journal), isn’t really about a judge doing anything wicked, so much as venting his temper in court. But he did so in a way that struck a chord with me.

Judge Martin McDonald* was hearing a prisoner’s habeas corpus action challenging his conviction. He was not a happy camper (all of this was caught on the court’s video system, put online by the local paper, and is embedded in the ABA Joural article). The prisoner was represented by someone from Kentucky’s version of the public defender system who is designated an “appellate counsel.” That’s what it says on my business cards, you see. So I caught McDonald’s barbs full force:
But then the judge erupts again:

‘I would appreciate DPA sending lawyers who actually are trial lawyers, and not some backseat drivers, that’s what I would appreciate. You’ve never been in the heat of the battle in one of these cases, and now you’re criticizing lawyers that actually are real lawyers that do the work, the dirty work, the down in the trenches work. That’s what I find distasteful and disgusting about this whole business.’
Note that folks like me aren’t “real lawyers” because we don’t do trial work. I’ve dealt with that slur long enough that I’ve grown used to it, ever since one of my divorce clients back in my Legal Aid days told me she was going to go get herself a “real” lawyer (i.e., one she had to pay for). Still, it’s beyond the pale for a sitting judge to ding a lawyer appearing before him that way.

Ironically, the judge backed down a bit later in terms of actually letting the prisoner’s lawyer do his job:
The judge relented, however, as the assistant commonwealth’s attorney, fearing an issue on appeal, urge[d] the judge to allow her opposing counsel more leeway, and allowed the hearing to continue.
Ah, we appellate lawyers are a crafty bunch!

As for the second, well, I think we can all agree that “crafty” is not the right word to use. As told by the The Legal Intelligencer, Philadelphia Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary was showing some pictures on his phone to a contractor. They included pictures of his mom, his kids, him with Stevie Wonder and one more thing – his penis.

The Court of Judicial Discipline, which concluded that Singletary brought “the judicial office into disrepute,” explained:
We think that the public — even those members of the public who register the lowest scores on the sensitivity index — do not expect their judges to be conducting photo sessions featuring the judicial penis and then to be sending the photos over the electronic airwaves to another person.
The “judicial penis?” Does it have a robe? A gavel? Scratch that - I don’t even want to know.

There’s actually an interesting legal issue there, as the court had to determine whether Singletary intentionally showed the penis pictures to the contractor, even though the parties agreed that he forgot the pictures were on his phone. As the court explained:
We hold that a judge who intentionally grooms his penis for photography, and then intentionally photographs his penis for the purpose of display to others, had better remember that the photographs are in his phone lest they ‘slip out’ at some inopportune (albeit unplanned) time under circumstances which are likely to offend another person or persons, for, if they do, we will hold such conduct satisfies the ‘mens rea requirement’ so as to support a finding that the conduct is such that brings the judicial office into disrepute.
You know, in this day and age when nothing electronic really disappears, that’s just good sound advice, whatever line of work you’re in. If you’re a judge (of any rank or stature), doubly so.

* Although the articles refer to him as “retired,” it’s unclear how he’s sitting on a current case. That does happen – witness my argument with the retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor a few years ago.

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