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Judging the judges

By M.D. Kittle

Updated at 12:15 p.m. to correct the names of the two state judges removed from office in 2021. Two other judges named in the original story have been removed from office, but are appealing those decisions. 


MADISON — Los Angeles-based California Court of Appeal Justice Jeffrey Johnson was accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct involving several women he worked with, including a fellow appellate court judge. 

The “pattern of unwelcome, undignified, discourteous and offensive conduct” included unwanted touching and disparaging remarks while he was under the influence of alcohol, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance. 

“Sexual misconduct has no place in the judiciary and is an affront to the dignity of the judicial office,” the commission wrote. 

Johnson is no longer a judge.

He was removed from the bench, following the investigation of 62 allegations of misconduct. The California Supreme Court last year refused to hear Johnson’s appeal. 

He was one of two state judges removed from office in 2021, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC).

The other was Maryland Judge Amy Leigh Nickerson after she violated the terms of her conditional diversion agreement, according to the state’s Commission on Judicial Disabilities. Nickerson previously had been convicted on charges of driving while impaired by alcohol, negligent driving, reckless driving, and dumping or depositing refuse on the highway. A judicial report also accused Nickerson of “injecting her judicial position as soon as she was stopped by the officer, and mentioning the officer’s superior to try to influence the officer. The Maryland Court of Appeals removed  Nickerson from the bench on the unanimous recommendation of the commission.

Two other judges removed from office continue their appeals. 

Alabama Judge Nakita Blocton used Facebook aliases to communicate with litigants in a domestic violence case in and “effort to affect the outcome of the case,” according to the state’s Judicial Inquiry Commission. Blocton also called her fellow jurists “Uncle Tom” and “heifer.” While under investigation for misconduct, the county judge ordered employees “to allow her to see their private cellphones so that information that might be relevant to the Commission’s investigation could be deleted.”

And Talladega County Probate Judge Randy Jinks, also from Alabama, was accused of misconduct in office and making racist and sexist comments that included saying George Floyd “got what he deserved.”

The Alabama Court of the Judiciary in November issued an order removing Jinks from the bench.

In all, there were 116 public state discipline proceedings last year involving judges or former judges, NCSC reports. About 55 percent of the cases were resolved pursuant to an agreement.

Of those cases, “20 judges were suspended without pay as a final sanction for from 7 days to 2 years, although five of those suspensions were deferred in whole or in part subject to the judge committing no further misconduct and other conditions,” NCSC reports.

There was one public state judicial discipline proceeding in Wisconsin in 2021, according to Jeremiah Van Hecke, executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered a seven-day suspension for Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Scott C. Woldt based on a complaint filed by the commission. 

Woldt, according to the complaint, violated the Code of Judicial Conduct for using crude language during a family court hearing and when speaking to a victim, and for encouraging a victim not to summon law enforcement if needed.

In the latter case, the judge criticized the victim for wanting the court to go easy on the man accused of assaulting her.

“And ma’am, if you come in here and tell me that you just want a fine, everything’s fine, then don’t pick up the phone and dial 911, don’t call the cops,” Woldt said in a 2009 case, according to court records. “I mean if you think you want to handle it, then you handle it; but if you want to pick up the phone and call the police, we’re going to get involved and we’re going to make him get the counseling which he needs. I’m just sick and tired of victims coming in here and they call the cops when they need ’em but then later on they come and say: Oh, no, this person’s an angel. I’m sick and tired of hearing it.”

He was also suspended for brandishing a gun in front of high school students during an Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce Government day event in 2016. Woldt was asked about security at the courthouse. He told the students in his courtroom that he carries the handgun for protection.

Supreme Court Justice Rebecca G. Bradley took issue with the charges involving the gun. She noted the commission found Woldt had a license for the handgun and acknowledged that properly licensed judges are expressly permitted by statute to carry a firearm in a courthouse — either openly or concealed.

“The majority’s analysis suggests that it is disciplining Judge Woldt at least in part because it considers the display of a firearm offensive,” Bradley wrote in her dissent. “This court should be wary of suspending a judge elected by the people, thereby temporarily subverting the will of the people, particularly when part of the basis for such discipline rests on three Justices regarding his conduct as politically incorrect.”

Woldt, who has been a judge since 2004, argued he should have instead received a public reprimand. He noted the incidents of misconduct had occurred several years before the complaint was filed.

According to the National Center for State Courts:

  • 1 judge was involuntarily retired.
  • 28 judges publicly agreed to resign or retire and never serve in judicial office again.
  • 7 judges publicly agreed to resign or retire and never serve again and, in addition, to receive a public censure (2 judges) or a public admonishment (4 judges) or to pay attorney’s fees and costs for the investigation and prosecution of the case, which were almost $74,500
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