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.

Massachusetts judge rejects plea deal in ICE evasion case

Shelley Joseph, the Massachusetts state judge who has been charged with helping an illegal immigrant evade an ICE official in her courthouse, has rejected a plea deal from federal prosecutors. Joseph was suspended from the bench after her arrest.

Joseph’s alleged actions have caused enormous controversy in the Bay State, raising difficult questions of federal-state relations, access and safety in state courthouses, and a wealth of moral and ethical considerations.

MassLive has a full report for those following this story closely.

Indiana judge, shot in White Castle skirmish, set to return to the bench

Judge Bradley Jacobs, who presides in the Clark County (Ind.) Circuit Court, will return to the bench after spending three months recovering from a gunshot wound. Judge Jacobs and a colleague, Drew Adams, were shot outside a White Castle restaurant in Indianapolis in the wee hours of the morning on May 1. They were in town for a judicial conference.

Judge Adams, the gunman, and one other man have been charged in the incident. Judge Adams has since been suspended from the bench for his role in the fight. Judge Jacobs was not charged.

The opioid crisis and the state courts

The Indianapolis Star has published an interesting op-ed from Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Tennessee State Court Administrator Deborah Taylor Tate, exploring (at a high level) how the national opioid epidemic has affected state courts. A snippet:

[O]ne fact remains: the state court justice system is now the primary referral source for addiction treatment in the country.

This reality has put enormous strain on our nation’s state courts, many of which have been overwhelmed by growing dockets and shrinking resources. In a recent survey of chief justices and state court administrators, 55 percent ranked the opioid epidemic’s impact on the courts as severe. The survey results are unsurprising, given the complexity of opioid cases: it takes an enormous amount of time to figure out what’s best for people who are addicted, how to care for their children, and what resources are available for them. And those who are placed in a treatment program with court oversight may remain involved with the court for years.

The courts are often the place of last resort for problems facing society, and have no choice but to address those problems creatively and (usually) with limited budgets. The opioid crisis is certainly playing out that way.

Maine considers tripling daily juror pay

A legislative committee in Maine has endorsed raising the daily pay of state court jurors from $15 to $50, a move which would shift the state from the nation’s bottom tier of juror pay to its top echelon. Legislators appear to understand that the current rate provides incentives to potential jurors not to show up to court. The proposed raise would require an annual outlay of an additional $1 million by fiscal 2020.

Washington judges to get a pay raise

The slightly ominous-sounding Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials has approved pay raises for several state government officials, including judges. Most judges will receive an 8.5% pay hike this year, another another 2.5% raise in 2020. The raises are designed to keep state judicial compensation close to the pay scale for federal judges.

Washington state judge chases, catches criminal defendants who try to flee his courtroom

A remarkable story from Chehalis, Washington. Judge R.W. Buzzard was completing a criminal hearing when two defendants–handcuffed and wearing prison garb–decided to turn and flee the courtroom. They ran down a stairwell and attempted to escape the building. Courtroom video shows Judge Buzzard leap from the bench, pull off his robe, and give chase. Near the bottom of the stairwell, he apprehends one of the defendants (the other was caught a few blocks away).

The courthouse video is here.

The incident raises obvious questions about courthouse security:

“These things don’t happen very often,” said Sheriff Rob Snaza. “They’re few and far between.”

Snaza said this represents the second such incident within the last couple of years, that he’s aware of. There are monthly meetings to discuss courthouse security issues.

During this incident, Snaza said, security measures and quick communication made deputies aware of the incident quickly. The only deputy in the room did not give chase because he had two other inmates in his care, said Snaza.