Judges Behaving Badly

A guest post by Lawrence Friedman

Attention turned this spring to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas following revelations of both the close relationship his wife, Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist, enjoyed with operatives involved in perpetuating the lie that Donald Trump won the last presidential election; and her express alignment with interest groups appearing before the Court. For his part, Justice Thomas has given no indication that he has or will recuse himself in cases in which his wife played some part.

But Justice Thomas is not the only jurist involved of late in questionable decisions regarding the limits of the judicial role. Back in 2018, as discussed here, Massachusetts state district court judge Shelley Joseph allegedly interfered with the enforcement of federal immigration law. The government maintains that, after presiding over the arraignment of an undocumented immigrant for whom Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had issued a detainer and warrant for removal, Judge Joseph helped the individual to avoid the ICE official waiting for him to exit the courthouse. The government charged her with conspiring to obstruct justice and obstructing a federal proceeding. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected her request for interlocutory relief while her prosecution continues in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

More recently, there is the story of New York Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera, under investigation by the state’s Commission on Judicial Conduct for refusing to adhere to the court system’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. As the New York Times reported in March, Judge Rivera “has participated remotely in the court’s activities since the fall, when the state court system’s vaccination mandate took effect and unvaccinated employees were barred from court facilities.” The other six justices of the state’s highest court have continued to confer and hold oral arguments in person. It seems clear that Judge Rivera did not claim she was exempt from the mandate on either religious or medical grounds. Continue reading “Judges Behaving Badly”

A judge faces a reprimand for a five-second phone call

Law360.com reports on an ethics complaint filed against Arthur Bergman, a retired state superior court judge in New Jersey. Judge Bergman allegedly made an independent phone call to a potential witness in a case over which he was presiding. Rule 3.8 of New Jersey’s Code of Judicial Conduct states, “Except as otherwise authorized by law or court rule, a judge shall not initiate or consider ex parte or other communications concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”

Judge Bergman does not contest that he made the call to a potential witness in the family trust dispute, but he maintains that the purpose of the call was simply to check the witness’s availability for a plenary hearing. The judge’s phone message, however, never referenced a hearing, and ultimately no hearing took place. Upon learning about the call, one of the attorneys in the case asked the judge to recuse himself, but Judge Bergman refused.

Complicating the story is the fact that Judge Bergman suffers from Parkinson’s disease, which apparently makes it difficult for him to speak. He maintains that this is why he did not mention the hearing on the message.

The state’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct is seeking a public censure, to send a message to other judges that such behavior is not appropriate.  Judge Bergman’s own lawyer maintains that disciplining a retired judge would do nothing to preserve the integrity of the state judiciary.

What do you think, readers?

On federal laws and state courthouses

By now,  many readers may be familiar with the growing tensions between states and the federal government over the Trump Administration policy of arresting illegal immigrants outside (and inside) state courthouses. The issue has been brewing for some time, and came to a head in Massachusetts this week when a state court judge and court officer were themselves arrested by federal authorities for helping Jose Medina-Perez, an illegal immigrant in their courtroom on drug charges, evade imminent arrest by an ICE agent by spiriting him out the back door of the courthouse.

Yesterday, in what they maintain is merely a coincidence of timing, two Massachusetts District Attorneys filed a lawsuit against the federal government, seeking to enjoin ICE from making any further arrests in state courthouses.

My former law school classmate Ted Folkman has an excellent rundown of the events and a sensible take on it at Letters Blogatory.  He writes:

My best understanding of the law is that the immigration agent had the right to seek to detain Medina-Perez in the courtroom and that the judge probably shouldn’t have put obstacles (or perhaps “obstructions”) in his way, though I do not want to offer an opinion about whether the judge’s conduct satisfies the elements of the criminal statutes without studying them. Again, we want to think back to another era and the contexts in which states sought to thwart federal law enforcement, and not make a legal rule based just on the sympathies of the moment. But that said, I also think it’s a terrible idea to send immigration agents to courthouses in the first place to arrest people, because it discourages people from attending court and is contrary to efforts to increase access to justice. And I find it hard to see why the federal government thinks the answer is to charge the judge criminally rather than for the Massachusetts court to exercise self-governance.

Two points here deserve elaboration. First, the federal policy is a terrible thing for the operation of state courts and their users. It represents a clear intrusion by a separate sovereign that threatens to disrupt state court proceedings. More importantly, the fear of arrest by ICE agents is sure to dissuade people from coming to court when it is necessary that they do so. The administration of justice will suffer as victims and key witnesses don’t show up for hearings and trials. Claims of domestic violence, child custody, landlord-tenant relations, personal injuries, and a variety of other issues either will not be brought at all, or will lead to default judgments when the defendants fail to appear. If the American tradition of due process means anything, it is that even those who are not citizens — even those who are not here legally — deserve a fair day in court.

At the same time, state courts and state judges are simply not free to ignore federal law and policy with which they disagree. American history is rife with examples of states unacceptably undermining federal law through the operation of their own court systems. Again, if due process means anything, it is that the law must be fairly applied in every venue, regardless of (as Ted puts it) “the sympathies of the moment.” And the charges against the Massachusetts judge, if proven, are quite damning: she allegedly closed her courtroom to the ICE agent, turned off the electronic recording system, and snuck a federal fugitive out the back door of the courthouse. Regardless of how you come down on the morality of her action, her alleged behavior was remarkably unjudicial.

Put differently — we have courts of law, not courts of justice. There are established procedures in place to stop harmful conduct. The lawsuit discussed above is one such procedure; taking the law into your own hands while wearing the robe is not. Whether or not one sympathizes with the intent of the state judge here, her alleged activities have surely damaged the integrity of the state judiciary.