Supreme Judicial Court reverses course on suspension of Judge Joseph

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

The tensions between state and federal authorities resulting from the Trump administration’s immigration policies are evident in debates over a proposed southern border wall, sanctuary cities and, in Massachusetts, the indictment of District Court Judge Shelley M. Joseph on obstruction of justice charges. An April 25, 2019 grand jury indictment alleges misconduct in her courtroom involving Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials and immigrants who had been held in state custody. While the federal criminal process moves forward in the wake of Joseph’s not-guilty plea, the federalism and state sovereignty issues have featured in a separate proceeding concerning her initial suspension without pay by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) in an order issued the same day as the grand jury indictment.

The SJC based its initial order “solely on the fact that [Judge Joseph] had been indicted for alleged misconduct in the performance of her judicial duties.” Joseph subsequently sought partial reconsideration, arguing that she should be suspended with pay, rather than without; and that she should be suspended only from her judicial duties. Following a nonevidentiary hearing, the SJC issued a revised order on August 13: a majority of the justices concluded that suspension with pay was appropriate in the unique circumstances of the case, and denied Joseph’s request to be assigned administrative duties.

The court was right to grant reconsideration and reverse course on the question whether Joseph should be paid during her suspension. It initially imposed suspension without pay absent any inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the federal indictment, relying for guidance on precedent as well as the Massachusetts Trial Court personnel policy and state statutes. Past suspensions notably had been imposed following findings indicating circumstances in which discipline was appropriate. As for the Trial Court policy, it provides that “[a]n employee who is indicted for misconduct in office … shall be suspended without pay until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings,” while Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30, Section 59, and Chapter 268A, Section 25 authorize the suspension of state officers and employees during any period they are under indictment for misconduct. These rules, as the SJC observed in Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority v. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Board, serve “to remedy the untenable situation which arises when a person who has been indicted for misconduct in office continues to perform his [or her] public duties while awaiting trial.”

Notwithstanding the laudable aim of the rules, their automatic application to a judge may be problematic—particularly when the criminal allegations involve conduct in the courtroom, as opposed to actions outside the scope of the judicial function. Here, the SJC’s initial reliance on the mere fact of the indictment as a basis for suspending Joseph obscured a legitimate concern about prosecutorial intrusion into a trial judge’s authority to control her own courtroom. That a federal prosecutor sought the indictment, moreover, potentially raises federalism and separation of powers issues. In these circumstances, some kind of pre-suspension inquiry was warranted—an inquiry that the SJC ultimately made through the hearing on Joseph’s reconsideration motion, aided by the briefs of the parties and amici on the question of whether her suspension should be with or without pay.

No doubt, the SJC’s decision to reconsider the terms of Judge Joseph’s suspension will offend many Massachusetts citizens; as Justice Frank Graziano argued in his dissent, they will see the court as according a judge special treatment by restoring her pay. But, as the concurring justices noted, the decision to suspend Joseph without pay effectively denied her the ability to mount a defense to the criminal charge against her—a charge that may well implicate both judicial independence and the sovereign authority of the state judiciary itself. By ordering suspension with pay, the SJC has given Joseph the ability to mount a vigorous defense—in the knowledge that her trial may well test the extent to which state and federal law enforcement officials can act in spaces that traditionally have been seen as beyond their reach.

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