December 31, 2009
Wall Street Journal
Judicial Misconduct: The Mice Guard The Cheese
By Nathan Koppel
Does the federal judiciary do a good enough job investigating misconduct complaints against its fellow judges?
It’s an oft debated topic that gets a particularly detailed airing today in this Houston Chronicle piece.
A spate of recent high-profile complaints against judges, including the sexual-abuse charges against former Texas federal judge Samuel Kent (pictured), has prompted experts and members of Congress alike to call for reforms and more disclosure of federal disciplinary decisions, the Chron reports. (Click here and here for LB coverage of the Kent case.)
The chief judges of the federal circuit courts oversee complaints against all the circuit, district, bankruptcy and magistrate judges in their regions.
But in seven circuits, according to the Chron, chief judges took no public disciplinary action at all in the last decade, “meaning not a single federal judge faced any sanctions in 29 states with more than 875 full-time federal judges, despite thousands of complaints.”
Citing one example, the Chron notes that James B. Loken, who oversees the 8th Circuit, has never formally investigated a complaint since becoming chief judge in 2003, according to Michael Gans, the 8th Circuit Clerk who works with Loken.
Early in his tenure, Loken dismissed misconduct complaints from an attorney as “signed by a person whose signature is illegible.” ...
In fairness, rogue federal judges are likely few and far between. And the current disciplinary apparatus helps preserve the independence of the federal bench. The federal justice system would break down if every complaint from disgruntled litigants got a full airing.
But it’s also true that the system leaves “the mice in charge of the cheese,” as attorney Lara Bazelon told the Chron. In a recent Kentucky Law Journal article, Bazelon wrote: “Judges are human beings just like the rest of us, and putting on a black robe should not immunize them from legitimate punishment.” ...
While our attention is currently focused on state judiciaries, Olsen’s article goes far to legitimize the NFOJA. NFOJA is the National Forum On Judicial Accountability. It promotes putting responsibility for discipline of state judges into the hands of a randomly selected, adequately trained, rotating group of private citizens...