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How Reuters examined misconduct by state and local judges across America

(Reuters) - To track misconduct by state, county and local judges from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, Reuters examined thousands of investigative files and reports for a dozen years – from 2008 through 2019.

The Parker Law Firm in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, U.S. November 11, 2019. Picture taken November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

Neither judicial misconduct cases nor the work of state commissions that oversee judges is tracked nationally by any government agency. Reuters built spreadsheets and databases to track complaints and sanctions, drawing on diverse sources that included investigative files, court and law enforcement records, audits, lawsuits and annual disclosures. Additionally, our reporters interviewed more than 200 state officials, attorneys and court staff, law enforcement officials and defendants.

Reuters spent more than a year acquiring state and court records for 1,509 public misconduct cases, often overcoming secretive systems in which states such as Illinois refused to disclose how many complaints are investigated annually.

Reporters traveled to a dozen states, conducted hundreds of interviews and obtained previously undisclosed court and law enforcement documents, including audio and video recordings.

Securing records and verifying cases often proved extraordinarily time consuming. Some states post disciplinary records on their websites and others summarize them in annual reports. But in many states, misconduct rulings are stored in supreme court files that are difficult for the public to access. Reuters searched a dozen years’ worth of supreme court dockets and used the legal database Westlaw to identify hundreds of cases of judicial misconduct that had not been publicly posted by state oversight agencies. (Westlaw, like Reuters, is a unit of Thomson Reuters Corp.)

The reporters confronted an even higher hurdle: In the vast majority of judicial misconduct cases, judges are disciplined privately, Reuters found. In those cases, the identities of judges and details of their transgressions are sealed. Nonetheless, the news agency was able to identify the names of dozens of judges who were privately sanctioned. Reuters did so by examining cases in which judges were disciplined publicly and then by scrutinizing those case files, which sometimes revealed past misconduct that had been kept private.

No state tracks how many people were victimized by a judge’s misconduct. Reuters did so by matching state misconduct files with court and jail databases, and other records, to track those adversely affected by a judge’s inappropriate behavior. Those victims ranged from children who were wrongfully taken from their parents to defendants who committed no crime but were jailed nonetheless.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS: JUDICIAL OVERSIGHT

Q: How do I file a formal complaint against a judge?

A: Complaints are filed with a state’s judicial oversight commission, which then investigates. Most states take complaints by email, letter and phone call, including anonymously. But about a dozen states require the complaint to be signed and notarized.

Q: What kind of complaints are investigated?

A: Commissions can investigate alleged misconduct by judges, but they cannot change verdicts or rulings – that power is reserved for the appeals courts. Most commissions investigate allegations related to bias, fairness and honesty. This can include racism, abuse of power, sexual harassment, favoritism, drunkenness and untenable delays in rulings.

Q: How do commissions investigate?

A: In secret. Most act like grand juries: They gather records by subpoena and hear testimony from witnesses, often including the accused judge. Such private disciplinary action is allowed in 39 states. If public charges are brought, most cases are heard by a special state tribunal.

Q: Who sits on commissions and special tribunals?

A: Most states employ a mix of judges, lawyers and members of the community who gather every few months to consider cases. They are often appointed by the state supreme court, the legislature and state bar associations.

Q: Who has ultimate say on judicial conduct?

A: In 42 states, the supreme court. The justices can confirm, alter or reject disciplinary actions by commissions or tribunals against judges.

Q: What are the penalties for judges who misbehave?

A: They vary but generally range from private discipline to public reprimand to suspension to removal from office. The penalty is likely to be longer if a judge engaged in a pattern of repeated misbehavior. The penalty can be shorter if a judge admits wrongdoing and shows contrition.

Q: Who handles complaints against federal judges?

A: Complaints against federal judges must be filed to the clerk in the appropriate regional circuit. They must be notarized, signed under penalty of perjury. The chief circuit judge will consider the complaint and may refer it to a panel of federal judges to investigate. This panel can issue a reprimand or seek a voluntary retirement, but only Congress can remove a judge, via impeachment.

Q: How can I reach Reuters about a matter involving misconduct?

A: Not all judges who have violated their oaths of office, broken the law or misbehaved on the bench have been brought before their states’ oversight commission. So if you know of a judge who may have committed misconduct, please send us details at tips@thomsonreuters.com. Include the name of the judge, the state, details of what the judge may have done wrong, and a way for us to contact you. Reuters investigates such tips and will contact you before publishing.

Reporting By Michael Berens and John Shiffman. Edited by Blake Morrison.

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