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When the pillars of justice fall, everyone loses

Earlier this week, the Daily Record reported that the Supreme Court recently denied cert in a case from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where a plaintiff was attempting to sue a Michigan state court judge who, while presiding over the plaintiff’s and his ex-wife’s felony child support case, was having an affair with the ex-wife.

The 6th Circuit, while describing the judge’s conduct as “a deeply troubling pattern of personal and professional misconduct,” held the judge’s actions were covered by judicial immunity. In the opinion’s conclusory paragraph, the 6th Circuit all but outright implored the high court to grant cert in this case and review the centuries-old doctrine of judicial immunity. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined the Sixth Circuit’s invitation. While no federal civil cause of action may lie in this case, the judge was thrown off the bench by the Michigan Supreme Court and barred from reelection for six years. (This may be an example of the worst type of (s)ex-parte communication that can occur with a judge!)

While examples of judges behaving badly are rare, unfortunately, they do happen. Just a few months ago, Maryland’s Court of Appeals suspended a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge for inappropriate comments made in open court to litigants, the public and attorneys.

Judges play perhaps the most important role in our judicial system. They wield both legal and equitable powers and authority and are entrusted to exercise those powers within the bounds of the law and society. While the public may expect or even accept bad conduct from attorneys (insert any lawyer joke here), when judges are found to have engaged in misconduct, the entire judicial system can be shaken.

Fortunately, in Maryland, instances of judicial misconduct are extremely rare. I think this is due in part to the demanding judicial selection process. In order to be appointed to the bench in Maryland, the state’s constitution, in addition to having age and residency requirements, mandates that appointees be licensed attorneys “who are most distinguished for integrity, wisdom and sound legal knowledge.” Maryland’s judicial selection process aims to ensure that the governor selects only the most qualified applicants for positions on the bench. The full judicial selection process is more fully detailed on the court’s website.

A mentor of mine recently went through the judicial application steps and I assisted her in many aspects of the process. While she ultimately was not appointed to the bench for this vacancy, I was able to obtain some firsthand insight into the selection process, and trust me when I say that getting appointed is no easy task. It involves a rigorous routine of applications, obtaining references, interviews, meetings, networking and more. This exhausting process gives me the confidence that the individuals selected to fulfill one of the most important jobs in Maryland’s government are, as the constitution requires, “distinguished for integrity, wisdom and sound legal knowledge.”

In my mind, however, one judicial disabilities case is one too many.

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