Judicial Conduct in the News

/ 12.Mar, 2013

Pennsylvania has had more than its share of judicial conduct issues in the news over the last several months.  From the top (conviction of Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin) to the bottom (Philadelphia traffic court judges removed for ticket fixing and lewd conduct), Pennsylvania’s judges have been making news for all the wrong reasons.  However, it is important to remember that we are not alone.

The Los Angeles Times has just published an editorial decrying the prevalence of ticket fixing in southern California, and noting references to ticket fixing from the 1930’s.  The editorial quotes a 1955 article describing ticket fixing as a “tenacious and widespread evil.”

A Southwest Georgia judge, Bill Bass, Sr., has been suspended for 60 days and agreed not to seek reelection.  Among other misconduct, Judge Bass was accused of trying an empty courtroom chair as a defendant (perhaps serving as a model for Clint Eastwood), engaging in vindictive conduct against those who did not support his election, and talking about his sex life in court.  The judge in question defended himself stating his sense of humor may have been misinterpreted, but admitted it was unconstitutional to try a chair.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court makes Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court look almost functional by comparison.  Last year Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser faced allegations of judicial misconduct after allegedly choking fellow justice Ann Walsh Bradley during the discussion of Gov. Scott Walker’s collective-bargaining law.  Justice Prosser has also admitted to shouting obscenities at Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.   Justice Bradley has removed herself from consideration of Justice Prosser’s misconduct case.  Three years ago the Wisconsin Supreme Court deadlocked on an ethics case against Justice Michael Gableman.  The allegation against Justice Gableman was that an attack ad in the 2008 election campaign amounted to a lie about a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice.  While a judge with the Circuit Court of Washington County, Justice Annette Ziegler of the Wisconsin Supreme Court faced ethics charges for failure to disclose her husband’s association with a bank which appeared before her as a defendant.

Judicial misconduct is not new, and will never disappear.  It is not unique to Pennsylvania, but happens in every jurisdiction throughout the country.  We can only hope to control it by carefully monitoring the conduct of our judges, and not allowing their elevated status to blind us to faults.

Josh J.T. Byrne, Esquire