Legally Speaking: The Broken Gavel Awards

John G. Browning Oct. 7, 2009, 3:32am

Last week, I wrote about judges who missed their calling, judging by the content of some recent orders and opinions from around the country.

The law clerk for one New York judge who attracted national notoriety for a taking an attorney to task for "negligent stapling" (among other things) even wrote to one of my editors to protest my "biting attack" on the jurist.

Unfortunately, that clerk's complaining letter was virtually identical to his letters written to other publications, and its author apparently had either not read or not understood my column, thus missing some key differences in my reporting. I guess you could say my discussion of the "negligent stapling" judge caused his clerk to become unfastened.

But for all the good judges out there – even those who obsess over office supplies – there are inevitably a few who tarnish the reputation of the entire judiciary.

The past year has witnessed the high profile prosecutions of jurists like former federal judge Samuel Kent of Galveston, who was sentenced to 33 months in prison for lying to those investigating him for sexual misconduct.

Kent had been accused by former court employees of repeated sexual assault and psychological abuse, and faced Congressional impeachment before finally resigning from the bench this summer. He was the first federal judge to be indicted for sex crimes.

In Luzerne County, Penn., judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan pleaded guilty last spring to tax evasion and wire fraud in another highly publicized case. The two had been part of a scheme that involved sentencing juveniles to certain private detention centers in exchange for $2.6 million in kickbacks.

For years, the scheme went unnoticed, despite such red flags as the fact that one judge's juvenile sentencing rate was twice the state average; the $785,000 luxury condo in Florida that the judges purchased together in 2004 – ostensibly on their government salaries; and the $1.5 million, 56-foot yacht (named "Reel Justice") that was conspicuously anchored in front of that condominium.

While their cases haven't received the same publicity as Judge Kent's did, other judges have faced sexual misconduct claims.

Here in Texas, Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law Judge Donald Jackson was indicted on a charge of official oppression in August. Judge Jackson is accused of offering to help Ariana Venegas, a defendant in his court who faced driving while intoxicated charges, by getting her case dismissed in exchange for sex.

According to the indictment, the 59-year-old judge offered to get the 27-year-old woman "a different attorney to get her case dismissed" as long as she would "enter into a relationship with him that was more than a one-night stand."

In Montana, the state Judicial Standards Commission has recommended that Lincoln County Justice of the Peace Gary Hicks be removed from office. Nine women had filed complaints with the commission, accusing Hicks of soliciting sexual favors in return for leniency, making inappropriate comments about the women's appearance, and in several instances stopping by their homes.

Meanwhile, in August, retired New York Supreme Court judge Ronald Tills pleaded guilty in federal court to transporting prostitutes across state lines and received an 18-month prison term.

Judge Tills had recruited women to work as prostitutes at meetings of a national men's fraternal organization, the Royal Order of Jesters. Unfortunately for at least one Jester, running a ring of hookers is no laughing matter – especially if you're a judge who was once known for the tough sentences he imposed on defendants.

Former Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Michael Joyce's sins ran to greed instead of those of the flesh. He was convicted late in 2008 on charges that he lied about neck and back injuries – and later abused his position on the bench – in order to cash in on roughly $440,000 in insurance payments following an August 2001 auto accident.

Judge Joyce's new Mercedes-Benz was rear-ended at an estimated speed of 5 miles per hour, and neither medical personnel nor police were called to the scene.

That didn't prevent him from making claims of severe bodily injuries to State Farm (the insurer of the driver who hit him) as well as his own insurance company, Erie Insurance Group; among other assertions, Joyce maintained that the pain left him unable to golf, exercise or scuba dive.

Oddly enough, during that same time period Joyce managed to go scuba diving in Jamaica and golfing in Florida, New York and the Caribbean.

The insurance companies paid, perhaps because Joyce filed his claims on judicial letterhead and referred to himself as a judge 115 times in letters to the carriers.

After Joyce's conviction on two counts of mail fraud and six counts of money laundering, U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan called the jury's finding a demonstration "that no person, even a judge, is above the law."

Other judges' recent foibles have demonstrated that they, too, are as prone to character flaws as the defendants appearing before them. Judge Timothy Ellender of Houma, La., was suspended five years ago and ordered to take a racial sensitivity course after he dressed up as an inmate – in blackface – for a Halloween party.

This year, the state Judicial Commission recommended that Ellender be censured for allegedly insensitive comments made to a woman seeking a restraining order against her husband.

In Nebraska, the Supreme Court suspended County Judge Jeffrey Marcuzzo for four months for leaving a profanity-laced message on a prosecutor's voice mail. Apparently, Judge Marcuzzo was angry at Deputy County Attorney Chad Brown's rescheduling of a matter in Marcuzzo's court, and chose to express that displeasure in language that was more suited to a Quentin Tarantino movie than the courtroom.

Circuit Judge Robert Nalley of Maryland, meanwhile, opted for actions over words when he grew frustrated with people parking in the wrong spaces at the courthouse: he deflated the tires of the offending vehicle.

However, the incident was observed by others, and the ensuing controversy later culminated in Judge Nalley resigning his position as the chief administrator of the courts (he remains on the bench).

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P. He may be contacted at:

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