Louisiana judge accused of helping pretrial services company extort poor defendants

The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have filed a federal lawsuit in the Middle District of Louisiana, alleging that a Baton Rouge pretrial services company required hundreds of state inmates to pay “fees” far in excess of their court-ordered bail before they could be released from jail.  The lawsuit further alleges that the pretrial services company, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), was actively assisted by state judge Trudy White. RHI apparently supported Judge White’s 2014 re-election bid.

Although RHI has no formal contract with the state court system, Judge White allegedly ordered more than 300 criminal defendants to complete RHI’s services in 2015 and 2016–without ever inquiring into each defendant’s financial status. RHI subsequently charged the defendants hundreds of dollars in fees for its services–including a $525 “signup fee.” As a result, the suit alleges, hundreds of defendants were forced to languish in jail while friends and family scrambled to raise the needed money.

At this point, these are only allegations.  But we will follow this lawsuit closely.  The caption is Ayo et al. v. Dunn. et al., Case No. 3:17-cv-526.

 

Florida judge faces recusal for Facebook friendship

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko’s Facebook account is the subject of a pending dispute in Florida’s Third Circuit Court of Appeal. Judge Butchko is friends on the social media site with local lawyer Israel Reyes, which appellants argue should disqualify her from hearing any cases involving Reyes or his firm.

Florida was an early leader in setting out ethics guidelines for judges on social media, with a 2009 opinion that barred judges from adding lawyers who may appear before them as “friends” on any social networking site. Had Judge Butchko recently added Mr. Reyes as a friend, it would seem a clear violation of the ethics guideline.

But there is a twist in this case: Mr. Reyes was formerly a colleague on the state bench with Judge Butchko, and it was in that capacity that they connected on Facebook. Only when Mr. Reyes left the bench did the potential for him to appear before Judge Butchko ever become a possibility. And the ethics opinion is silent about removing friends from social media–as opposed to adding new ones.

Mr. Reyes is representing a non-party in the case before Judge Butchko, but the proper defendant in the case finds the entire disqualification motion absurd:

“No reasonably prudent Miami lawyer has a well-founded fear of not receiving a fair and impartial trial simply because two judges who sat on the bench in Miami-Dade County are ‘friends’ on Facebook,” wrote Shutts & Bowen attorneys Patrick Brugger and Frank Zacherl of Miami, who did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Judge Butchko could presumably resolve the issue quickly by dropping Mr. Reyes as a Facebook friend, so as to avoid any perception of partiality. Nothing would prevent her from maintaining a real friendship within professional limits. And that might be the best kind of friendship after all.

 

Canadian judges cleared of conflict-of-interest charges

Three federal judges in Canada have been cleared of wrongdoing after they attended sponsored social events at an international tax conference in Spain.  The Canadian Judicial Council concluded that concerns that the judges’ attendance compromised their impartiality were “unfounded.”

The judges themselves were more sanguine about the signal their attendance might have sent.  Judge R.S. Bocock, for example, recused himself from a pending case involving one of the sponsors, even though he was unaware of the conflict at the time he attended the sponsored event.  Bocock stated,

“I have reflected on this entire matter….The potential for a conflict of interest in this matter seems remote; however, through inadvertence, the portrayal of a potential conflict, where all the facts are at first unknown, is possible,” said Bocock, in a letter sent to the complainant.

“As such, there are consequences, costs, and reputational risks to the judge, the judiciary and the administration of justice as a whole. Prudence and best practice would suggest that, in future, refraining from attending such off site sponsored conference receptions is a better and wiser choice. I certainly intend to follow this prudent conduct in the future.”

Judges often have to straddle a line on social occasions so as to not appear to favoring a particular party or law firm.  The appearance of impartiality is so important that most judges choose to avoid more social events than they rightfully should.  But there is no easy solution.  Justice Abe Fortas reportedly said that “Judging is a lonely job in which a man is, or near as may be, an island entire.”  The phrasing is a bit stiff, but there is plainly some truth to the observation.

Judges beware: the (ongoing) risks of a social media presence

At Above the Law, Nicole Black has an interesting piece on “judicial missteps” associated with social media use.  Judges have faced recent disciplinary actions for posting on Facebook about active cases, attorneys appearing before them, or other judicial candidates. Black reminds us:

But the convenience of the immediacy and reach of social media is often tempered by its permanency. After all, a single tweet or Facebook post can have unintended and long-lasting effects. Unfortunately, that’s something people often forget in the heat of the moment, resulting in regrettable and irreversible mistakes.

That’s good advice for everyone.  A little discretion on the internet goes a long way.

Two extremes along the spectrum of judicial professionalism

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Anna Brown was recognized with the 2017 American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the Ninth Circuit.  Judge Brown has served on the bench for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon since 1999.  Cribbing from the press release:

Brown is president of the 9th Circuit District Judges Association, speaks frequently on programs for new trial judges, and currently serves on the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference. She is a past member and officer of the Gus. J. Solomon American Inn of Court, has served as chair of the Oregon State Bar Uniform Civil and Criminal Jury Instructions Committees and the 9th Circuit Jury Instructions and Jury Trial Improvement Committees, and is a founding member of Oregon Women Judges in conjunction with Oregon Women Lawyers and the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society.

While working full-time as a 911 operator, Brown earned her bachelor’s degree from Portland State University. Attending law school at night, she earned a J.D. from Northwestern School of Law (now Lewis & Clark Law School). She served as law clerk to Multnomah County Circuit Judge John C. Beatty, Jr.

Congratulations to Judge Brown on a well-deserved honor.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, something far less than honor was falling on Houston Justice of the Peace Hilary Green, who was suspended by the Texas Supreme Court amid allegations that she engaged in sexting in the courtroom, hired prostitutes, used her bailiff to buy drugs, and brought home marijuana seized from a defendant.

Green’s lawyer, Chip Babcock, responded to the suspension by noting that Green had been reelected many times by the voters.  “She’s very popular in the precinct,” he said.

Sigh.

 

Nevada judge falsely claims celebrity endorsement in reelection campaign

Almase ad

Las Vegas judge Heidi Almase has come under criticism after a photoshopped campaign sign showed her standing with actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Johnson has not endorsed anyone in the campaign, and in the wake of the kerfuffle Almase fired her campaign manager. No word on whether the judge will face an ethics investigation.

 

Lubet on an ethics code for the Supreme Court

I’m a few days late on this, but Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet has written an interesting op-ed on the need for an explicit code of ethics for the U.S. Supreme Court.  Don’t be put off by the annoying nature of the CNN website or the clickbait headline, for which Steve understandably disclaims responsibility.

Stern on Judicial Candidates’ Right to Lie

Nat Stern (Florida State) has posted his new article, Judicial Candidates’ Right to Lie, on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

A large majority of state judges are chosen through some form of popular election. In Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, the Supreme Court struck down a law forbidding certain judicial campaign speech. A decade later, the Court in United States v. Alvarez ruled that factually false statements do not constitute categorically unprotected expression under the First Amendment. Together these two holdings, along with the Court’s wider protection of political expression and disapproval of content-based restrictions, cast serious doubt on states’ ability to ban false and misleading speech by judicial candidates. Commonly known as the misrepresent clause, this prohibition has intuitive appeal in light of judges’ responsibilities and still exists in many states. Given the provision’s vulnerability to challenge, however, states may be able to avert chronic fabrication by judicial candidates only by removing its ultimate source — judicial elections themselves.

Florida judge admits ethics violations in election campaign

From the Palm Beach Post: Santino says she broke rules in election but still fit to be judge.

The judge, who was elected in November, is facing disciplinary action for four ethics violations, stemming from campaign statements that impugned the integrity of her opponent and the entire judicial process. Of note, Judge Santino sent a campaign email disparaging her opponent’s criminal defense work and is tied to a Facebook page proclaiming that her opponent “has made a lot of money trying to free Palm Beach County’s worst criminals.”

Judge Santino faces a disciplinary hearing before another state judge this week, after which recommendations will be made to the state supreme court. From an organizational perspective, this is another interesting example of the courts policing the actions of their own members even when those actions fall outside the strict definition of judicial activity.

The case, alas, is also another example of how contested judicial elections can compromise both the actual and perceived impartiality of judges. Most judges, of course, never run into ethical issues of this type. But elections vastly increase the risk of such ethical violations, and the misbehavior of a handful of judges or judicial candidates can have damaging ripple effects on the public trust of the entire judiciary.

Former West Virginia judge appointed state court administrator after bizarre election campaign

A recent court appointment in West Virginia highlights the interplay between a court system’s internal management and its external environment.  Gary Johnson served as a state circuit court judge for 24 years before losing his reelection bid last year by 220 votes.  Last month, his opponent, Stephen Callaghan, was suspended from his judicial duties for two years for improper conduct during he campaign.  (Callaghan’s campaign apparently issued a flyer implying that Judge Johnson partied at the White House with Barack Obama, an action deemed to be a violation of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct and Rules of Professional Conduct.)

Judge Johnson could not undo the election results, but he landed on his feet quickly.  In January, he was appointed interim Administrative Director of the West Virginia courts.  Yesterday, the state supreme court gave him the job permanently.

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