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Unequal justice

By M.D. Kittle

Wisconsin Spotlight  | Aug. 4, 2020

MADISON — An Alabama single mom spent nearly 500 days in prison — for failing to pay traffic tickets. 

Judge Les Hayes, who acknowledged violating multiple sections in the state’s judicial code for ordering the severe sentence, was allowed back on the bench after an 11-month suspension. 

He is among thousands of state and local judges “who were allowed to keep positions of extraordinary power and prestige after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold,” a recent Reuters investigation found.

The news organization conducted an extensive review of judicial misconduct nationally, drawing from some 1,500 cases between 2008 and 2019 in which judges resigned, retired or were publicly disciplined for improper actions. And Reuters over the same period examined another 3,600 cases in which states disciplined bad judges but kept key details of offenses from the public. 

“All told, 9 of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct,” the news agency reported. “They included a California judge who had sex in his courthouse chambers, once with his former law intern and separately with an attorney; a New York judge who berated domestic violence victims; and a Maryland judge who, after his arrest for driving drunk, was allowed to return to the bench provided he took a Breathalyzer test before each appearance.”

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University, told Reuters that its findings uncover an “excessively” forgiving judicial disciplinary system. Gillers,  a judicial ethics expert, said the public “would be appalled at some of the lenient treatment judges get” for substantial transgressions.

Among the cases from the past year alone:

In Utah, a judge texted a video of a man’s scrotum to court clerks. He was reprimanded but remains on the bench.

In Indiana, three judges attending a conference last spring got drunk and sparked a 3 a.m. brawl outside a White Castle fast-food restaurant that ended with two of the judges shot. Although the state supreme court found the three judges had “discredited the entire Indiana judiciary,” each returned to the bench after a suspension.

In Texas, a judge burst in on jurors deliberating the case of a woman charged with sex trafficking and declared that God told him the defendant was innocent. The offending judge received a warning and returned to the bench. The defendant was convicted after a new judge took over the case.

“If we have a system that holds a wrongdoer accountable but we fail to address the victims, then we are really losing sight of what a justice system should be all about,” Pennsylvania senior Judge Arthur Grim told the publication. Grim was appointed by the state’s Supreme Court in 2009 to lead a review of cases. 

Read the full investigation at Reuters.

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