Removing “Rogue Judges”
That’s the subject of this article. It’s basically a two stage process. Someone first complains to the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Then, if the commission thinks it’s meritorious, they file formal charges with the Court of the Judiciary. That’s where the “trial” would occur. The article discusses candidate’s views on these recent changes to the process:
Informing judges each time a complaint has been made, including who made it. Previously, the commission would dismiss frivolous complaints without the judge even learning about it. Only after the commission brought formal charges would judges be informed about the allegations, and even then, the identity of the original complainant would be kept secret.
Keeping judges informed about the details of an investigation as it progresses. The commission now is required to send the judge under scrutiny a copy of all documents in the investigative file every four weeks.
Requiring complaints to be sworn in front of a notary public. Previously, people could simply submit written complaints to the Judicial Inquiry Commission.
Requiring all nine members to be present in order to hold a vote to bring charges against a judge. The new rules also require the commission members to meet in order to decide whether to start an investigation, and they must do so within 42 days of the filing of the complaint. Previously, commission staff could perform preliminary work.
The high court also made changes to the Court of the Judiciary. The justices initially required a unanimous vote to sanction a judge. Four months later, the justices backed off that position, requiring a unanimous vote to remove a judge and six votes out of nine to impose lesser punishments. Originally, a simple majority was all that was needed to remove a judge from office.
As you might suppose, opinions vary about the merits of the changes. The affect has been to reduce the number of complaints and sanctions. Whether that’s because the new rules filter out frivolous complaints, or prevent meritorious complaints, is anyone’s guess.
Some of the new rules, I think, are definitely a good idea. For instance, setting a time limit on the beginning of an investigation. No-one benefits from delayed investigations.
On the other hand, I think this is a great point:
Randall Cole, a circuit judge for DeKalb and Cherokee counties in northeast Alabama who chairs the Judicial Inquiry Commission, said he continues to have concerns about the rule changes five years later. He said people routinely call the commission’s staff with complaints about judges but fail to follow through once they learn about the process.
Cole said that shortly after the new rules went into effect, he talked to an employee of the court system who had a fairly serious complaint against a judge. He said he does not recall the details of the allegation but added that the employee did not want to make a formal complaint for fear that the judge would retaliate.
Lawyers especially are reluctant to file complaints out of concern that it will impact their clients on other cases, Cole said.
Complaints rarely result in charges. Margaret Childers, the executive director of the Judicial Inquiry Commission, said the Court of the Judiciary disciplines about one judge per year. Earlier this year, Talladega County District Judge Tommy Dobson was suspended for two months without pay for letting an assistant decide hundreds of cases without his oversight.
Still, even nonmeritorious complaints serve a purpose, Cole said.
“I think one of the important functions of the commission is to offer people a forum to complain about a judge,” he said. “If that door is closed to them in any way and they’re not allowed to file a complaint, I think that’s damaging to the system generally.”
I agree with Judge Cole. Making people jump through a thousand hoops just to file a complaint may eliminate frivolous complaints, but it’s also going to hinder meritorious complaints and even in the case of frivolous ones will reinforce the complainant’s belief that the system is corrupt. That creates an audience for the real wackos: J.A.I.L For Judges and their kind.
So make it as easy as possible to file the complaint. Let the complainant remain anonymous, at least initially. The subsequent investigation can sort out the good from the bad. And if formal charges result, then reveal the complainant.