Judging the judges
All 50 states have judicial conduct commissions responsible for investigating complaints against judges. In 2008, 13 judges were removed from office as a result, according to the Center for Judicial Ethics of the American Judicature Society. About 120 U.S. judges receive public discipline each year.
“They dismiss a vast majority of the complaints because they’re about the judge’s decision,” said Cynthia Gray, the center’s director. “With a few exceptions, being wrong isn’t the same as being unethical.”
The most common complaints are inappropriate demeanor in court, drunken driving, and misuse of office – “saying, ‘Do you know who I am?’ in inappropriate circumstances,” Gray said.
In Idaho, there were 121 complaints against judges in 2008, most of them for erroneous decisions or bias. Forty-four complaints were immediately dismissed as unverified, 57 were dismissed after review for lack of factual basis, and investigations were launched in 20 cases. One judge received a private reprimand; five cases are pending.
Idaho’s Judicial Council is a bipartisan group chaired by the chief justice of the Supreme Court and including three attorney members appointed by the state bar and approved by the Senate, one of whom must be a district judge; and three nonattorney members appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. Washington’s Commission on Judicial Conduct has six nonlawyer members appointed by the governor, three judges, and two lawyers appointed by the state bar. It reviewed 538 complaints in 2008, dismissed 355, and disciplined 10 judges through admonishment, reprimand or censure.
In Washington, as in 33 other states, the discipline process becomes public as soon as formal charges are filed against a judge.
In Idaho, as in 12 other states, the entire process remains confidential unless a case goes to the Idaho Supreme Court for review – and only two ever have.