Secrecy: How can judges accused of misconduct avoid public scrutiny?

Thousands of appeals are filed by judges each year, but few end up being punished. Behavioral experts say it is time for governments

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When the defendants became angry, Michael F. McGuire, a district judge in the Catskills region of New York State, could have struck them with “contempt of court” and ordered them to be handcuffed or, in extreme cases, to be sentenced to 30 days in jail.

McGuire, who was elected to Sullivan County in 2011, did so several times over the years without warning: to someone who asked him to withdraw because, he said, McGuire knew his son, to a mother who was angry when she heard it. ridiculed by McGuire and a grandmother who objected to turning her granddaughter over to her alleged abusive father.

That was not his only case of misconduct, according to a code of conduct filed in 2018 by the state watchdog, which accused McGuire of undermining court staff; making “degrading” statements, such as suggesting that people in his court may date a “drug dealer” or a “prostitute”; presiding over cases where his impartiality is questioned; and representing family members and friends in personal matters. The watchdog, the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said it "lacked integrity" during its investigation.

According to his "bad" case, the state court of appeals ruled last year that McGuire - who was paid $ 210,161 a year - be removed from the bench, the most severe penalty a judge could face. The public, however, had heard of the moral charges a few months earlier, in March 2020, more than a year and a half after McGuire was given a code of conduct and the appellate court said he had been informed of the commission's recommendation unanimously. to punish him.

McGuire resigned in May 2020, but he still has another job already planned - as Sullivan County Attorney General, a position he still holds.

McGuire did not respond to requests for comment. In his resignation letter last year, he wrote, "I am proud of our achievements" on the bench and "deeply saddened by the matters brought to me by this Court."

Joseph LaPiana, who appeared before McGuire in a family case last year and could not see his one-year-old daughter, said, “Judges work for the community - we should know they are being investigated for any misconduct. . ”

If McGuire's misconduct had taken place in a neighboring country, such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Vermont, the public would have been informed earlier - at the beginning of the litigation.

The time when the public is allowed to know about allegations against judges can vary greatly between provinces. Others allow judges to take months or years before credible appeals are raised. With more than 100 million cases filed in domestic and state courts each year and as judges use almost absolute power to decide who gets custody of children to marry or people to go to prison, public ability to monitor judicial behavior is important for transparency, and deserves as much attention as recent requests for police correction and prosecution, experts in the judiciary are arguing.

Misconduct in the courts “undermines confidence in our justice system,” says Susan Saab Fortney, director of the Legal Development Program at Texas A&M University School of Law.

Private regions

Detection of misconduct is a rare occurrence in the criminal justice system. Legal experts say a small percentage of judges who are punished every year do not show that everything is going well for the judges - it raises a lack of accountability.

Each state has a type of legal ethics commission where the public can lodge allegations of misconduct with judges. It is often up to the organization, which may be composed of other judges, lawyers and the general public, to determine whether the complaints violate the state's ethical code of conduct - guidelines for judges to act independently, honestly and impartially. The conduct of a judge within and outside the court, including the forums, may be subject to disciplinary action.

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A review of NBC News for various regional ethics commission data from 2016 to 2020 shows that thousands of complaints are lodged nationwide every year but about one percent of them lead to public disciplinary action or resignation following the opening of the investigation.

Although commissions are adamant that many complaints are baseless - for example, the defendant is not satisfied with the judge's decision - that the country not recording the public sanctions against judges sounds unbelievable, said Robert Tembeckjian, a New York director and adviser. State Judicial Ethics Commission.

"It is very unlikely that any state will have a court that is so degraded that every year no one is disciplined," Tembeckjian said. "Even in places like New York, where we have high quality judicial education programs, there are more cases every year."

The New York Commission, which oversees some 3,500 provincial and local judges, has received more than 2,000,000 complaints every year for the past five years, and each year, the state punishes a judge or one who has resigned for misconduct in one or two cases. Some larger states, such as California and Texas, allow more judges each year.