I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In Australia, Britain, Canada, and elsewhere, judges are appointed by the government on the advice of vetting bodies. Usually, judges must have extensive experience in the practice of law and be of exemplary character. The process can be faulted for its secrecy, but it does ensure that few judges go rogue. Unfortunately, some of them still do, and many have said monumentally stupid things.
Judge “Knees Together”
In September 2014, Justice Robin Camp displayed the compassion and understanding of a slab of concrete. He was hearing a case in which a woman accused a man of raping her at a house party in Calgary, Alberta.
The judge offered his learned opinion that the young woman did not do enough to fight her assailant off. “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” he asked. The storm of protest that followed this cloddish remark prompted Judge Camp to volunteer for sensitivity training. A bit late, your honour.
There is a disciplinary process available in Canada for judges who misbehave, but it’s very rarely used. In this case, the Canadian Judicial Council unanimously recommended that Judge Camp be removed from the bench. Instead, Judge Camp beat them to the punch by taking early retirement, thereby preserving his pension.
In the United States, most local and state judges are elected, and the lack of a rigorous screening process sometimes leads to embarrassment and brings the dignity of the courtroom into disrepute.
A thorough selection process might have spared the good people of Albany, New York, the spectacle of Judge William A. Carter. A former New York State Trooper, Judge Carter was first elected in 2002 to preside over the activities of the Albany City Court. He has since raised a few eyebrows.
In June 2006, The New York Times reported that the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct recommended censuring Judge Carter. Why? “According to the commission’s report, in 2004, the judge left the bench, ‘threw off his glasses and judicial robes’ and confronted a defendant who had denounced the court proceedings, asking, ‘You want a piece of me?’” Behaviour of this sort is hardly decorous or likely to lift the public esteem in which the court should be held.
In June 2007, The Economist reported that Judge Carter “suggested that the police ‘thump the s**t out’ of an allegedly disrespectful defendant.” No matter. Apparently, the folks in Albany like their blunt-speaking judge, as he was re-elected in 2012 and again in 2016.
Can Justice Be Bought?
The Justice at Stake Campaign is an advocacy group in the U.S. that works “to keep our courts fair, impartial, and free from special-interest and partisan agendas.” It notes that running for state Supreme Court judgeships is an expensive proposition. In 2013–14, four seats were up for election in Texas. Candidates vying for those jobs spent more than $3.6 million. In North Carolina, the campaign bill for four seats was over $6 million, while Michigan’s three seats generated a whopping $9.5 million in election expenses.
In some cases, it’s perfectly legal for judges seeking election to solicit donations from attorneys who might appear before them. Comedian John Oliver comments “Judges asking lawyers to give them campaign money is the definition of a conflict of interest. Think about it—giving money to judges wouldn’t be acceptable in a state fair squash growing competition.”
The Brennan Center for Justice reported in 2007 that “State Supreme Court elections attracted record sums from business interests, a reflection of the importance of state courts in setting corporate damage payments.”
The Justice at Stake group notes that “Many Americans have come to fear that justice is for sale.” This sentiment was echoed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who warned about “political prize-fights, where partisans and special interests seek to install judges who will answer to them instead of the law and the constitution.”
Certainly, there are cases of payoffs in the U.S. justice system. In August 2011, juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella Jr. of Pennsylvania was given a 28-year prison sentence after he and another judge were convicted in a bribery scheme. The Scranton Times-Tribune reported that Ciavarella admitted “to tax charges and fraud for taking nearly $1 million from the builder of a for-profit detention center . . .” In return, he sentenced juvenile offenders to the privately run facilities, although he fiercely denied selling “kids for cash.”
Plenty of Bad Judges
It doesn’t require the skills of a super-sleuth to dig up other examples of judges behaving badly. In 1999, Judge Ralph G. Turco of Tacoma, Washington, was removed from the bench after he punched his wife at a church function. He had already established himself as a man with sympathy for spousal abusers; as The Seattle Times reported, “he was admonished for remarks he made during a domestic-violence trial, during which he told a man he should have kicked his wife instead of biting her.” And in 1992, with all the solemnity befitting his exalted office, “Turco was censured for settling a traffic case with a flip of a coin.”
Judge Gigi Sullivan of Springdale, Pennsylvania, had a substance abuse problem. In 1999, she received a prison sentence for taking heroin in her chambers and appearing in court under the influence of narcotics. A year later, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that the former judge entered a guilty plea for “conspiring to deliver cocaine, corrupt organizations, obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function, hindering apprehension or prosecution, bribery, and criminal conspiracy to commit forgery. She also pleaded no contest to one count of forgery.”
In 2007, Judge John Sloop of Florida was sacked for “rude and abusive” behaviour. Among his actions was an order to strip-search and jail 11 people who arrived late at traffic court because they had been given the wrong directions.
In October 2014, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery retired (or was told to retire) after it was discovered he had distributed hundreds of pornographic e-mails.
In 2006, Oklahoma District Judge Donald Thompson drew a four-year prison term for (turn your face to the wall my children . . .) exposing himself during jury trials and using a penis pump under his robes. Thompson also had a drunk driving conviction and had been arrested for stalking an ex-girlfriend.
Judge Fuller Charged With Drunk Driving and Forced to Resign
Texas State District Judge Elizabeth Coker had to resign in 2014 when she was caught texting prosecutors during trials over which she was presiding, advising them of suitable lines of questioning. She also admitted to tampering with jurors and witnesses to pervert the course of justice.
Then, there’s . . . well, that’s enough for now. The picture of improper judicial antics has been painted vividly enough to cast doubt on the wisdom of electing judges. As the 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac remarked, “To distrust the judiciary marks the beginning of the end of society.”
- “I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury.” —Grouch Marx
- Josten Bundy popped his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend in the jaw a couple of times in 2015. Texas Smith County Judge Randall Rogers ordered Bundy to marry the young woman in question, engage in counseling, and write out Bible verses.
- “ ‘Why Couldn’t you just Keep your Knees Together?’: Judge’s Comments Will Deter Rape Victims.” Mia Rabson, Winnipeg Free Press, November 12, 2015.
- “Albany: Censure Recommended for City Judge.” Danny Hakim, New York Times, October 3, 2006.
- “Judges Behaving Badly.” The Economist, June 28, 2007.
- “2013-14 State Supreme Court Elections by State.” The New Politics of Judicial Elections.
- “Elected Judges.” John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, February 23, 2015.
- “Ciavarella Sentenced to 28 Years, Surrenders to U.S. Marshals.” Staff Report, Scranton Times-Tribune, August 11, 2011.
- “Board Says Tacoma Judge Should Be Removed -- Ralph Turco Accused Of Striking His Wife.” Nancy Bartley, Seattle Times, March 5, 1998.
- “Judge Waits for Sullivan to End Rehab.” Ramesh Santanam, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 25, 2001.
- “Court Removes Judge Sloop.” Jan Pudlow, Florida Bar Association, January 1, 2007.
- “Judges Behaving Badly: A Great American Tradition.” Asawin Suebsaeng, The Daily Beast, October 30, 2014.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
tzwrites on January 20, 2017:
While appointing judges has its faults, I think election of judges by the public would be much more problematic, it would make it similar to political campaigning.