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‘I should not have said that. Are there cameras in here?’: Judges disciplined for remarks in 2020

From calling a defendant an addict to making sexist remarks about a clerk, U.S. judges made — and were punished for — some outrageous comments in 2020.

The Judicial Conduct Reporter from the National Center for State Courts Center for Judicial Ethics reviews judicial discipline and removal cases each year. The report said there were approximately 127 public state judicial discipline proceedings in 2020. Approximately one-third of sanctions were entered pursuant to the judge’s agreement.

Eleven judges were removed from office in 2020, and five former judges were barred from serving in office again. Thirteen judges or former judges resigned or retired in lieu of discipline.

Here are some of the questionable comments and actions that got judges across the country in trouble in 2020.

Comments to or about litigants

“And when I say communication, I don’t mean ‘and den da b**ch done dis, and den da b**ch done dat.’” Judge affecting an Ebonics accent and dialect to a couple during a custody dispute. Tranquilli (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline 2020) (ordering that a former’s judge pledge not to serve be irrevocable and that pay that had been withheld during his interim suspension be permanently withheld).

“I’m going to throw you out and put you in handcuffs in about 30 seconds, all right? So you can either walk out or get thrown out if I have to look at another outrageous expression from you. Clear? Because if I have to tell you again, I’m just going to ask the officer to put you in handcuffs, and then you’ll—you’ll experience the Sullivan County Jail.” Judge in a custody and visitation matter to a party’s mother sitting in the back of the courtroom. McGuire (New York Commission 2020) (removal for this and other misconduct).

Comments to or about criminal defendants

“Frankly it would be my desire to sentence you to life without parole because you really have demonstrated you have no desire or intention to ever be a productive member of society, to ever be a parent, to ever be anything that resembles a mother. You merely gave birth to the children but then you — you have emotionally abandoned them.” Judge in sentencing hearing. McGuire (New York Commission 2020) (removal for this and other misconduct).

“I think you’re a f***ing addict and maybe you need treatment. I don’t think it’s got nothing to do with anger management. You think I give you anger management and that’s gonna get you clean and sober? What the hell are you talking about? Have a seat, over here … Percocet and alcohol … I’m gonna relax a little bit and then figure out what to do with him. …” Judge to defendant in drug court. Wilson (Washington Commission 2020) (censure for this and similar misconduct).

Comments to or about women

“I don’t care what anybody wears, Ms. McKeegan, if you wear yoga pants to court, it’s OK with me;” and “Oh, I should not have said that. Are there cameras in here?” Judge to assistant district attorney. In the Matter of Gerber, Determination (New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct June 27, 2020) (admonition for this and other misconduct).

In the Matter of Miller, 158 N.E.3d 87 (New York 2020), the judge said to the chief clerk, after a potluck lunch, that, if he “knew [she] could also cook, [he] would have gone for [her].” Once when she apologized for fanning herself because she was having a hot flash, he told her that “[i]t’s nice to know [he] still ha[s] that effect on [her].” One day as he was walking by her office, the judge remarked to her: “You look really hot in that outfit. You should always wear that outfit.”

Comments to or about attorneys

“You weren’t out of strikes when you decided to put Aunt Jemima on the jury,” and “[you] knew darn well that when she goes home to her baby daddy, he’s probably slinging heroin too.” Judge to assistant district attorney about a black female juror who wore her hair in a kerchief during the trial. Tranquill (Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline 2020) (ordering that a former’s judge pledge not to serve be irrevocable and that pay that had been withheld during his interim suspension be permanently withheld).

“I’m not sure I want to shake your hand;” and “Do you know how much trouble you have caused me? Do you know how much money I have had to pay lawyers because of you?” Judge to attorney he believed had complained about him to the Commission on Judicial Performance. Bennett (California Commission 2020) (censure for this and other misconduct).

Comments to court staff

“I’ll talk to you the way I want. If you weren’t so incompetent I wouldn’t talk to you like that.” Judge to her secretary. Pineda-Kirwan (New York State Commission 2020) (censure for this and similar misconduct).

“Do not shake your head at me,” and “Do you want to be held in contempt?” Judge to court staff member in lobby while trying to quiet a group leaving an investiture. Miller, 304 So.3d 1214 (Florida 2020)

“It was much easier in the old days when they used to call them all [English and Spanish derogatory slurs for undocumented immigrants from Mexico].” Judge to court reporter in courtroom during recess. Luitjen (Texas Commission 2020) (admonition).

Comments to law enforcement

“Yeah, you can’t arrest us for this. This is not — this is not a jailable offense.” Magistrate to Department of Natural Resources officers who had witnessed him and his father violating a state fishing regulation. Ferguson, 841 S.E.2d 887 (West Virginia 2020) (90-day suspension, $2,000 fine, and reprimand).

“Big mistake, I should have been in Lucas County. I’m a judge there. I’m not trying to play that up, but.” Judge to police officer during traffic stop. Gonzalez, 153 N.E.3d 70 (Ohio 2020) (reprimand).