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U.S. News

Teflon Robe: 4 takeaways from Reuters' latest investigation of U.S. judicial misconduct

(Reuters) - An Arkansas judge who styled himself as a “Sugar Daddy” and was accused by local women of soliciting sex in exchange for cash, drugs and bail leniency largely escaped accountability from authorities for years, a Reuters investigation found.

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

On his final day in office, the judge was forced to resign from the bench in disgrace. But more than three years later, state officials have yet to decide whether he should be allowed to keep his law license. To date, he continues to practice law despite his misconduct on the bench.

The story of District Court Judge Tim Parker shows how hard it can be to remove an American judge suspected of corruption. It also illustrates how, even after misconduct on the bench becomes an open secret, a judge can remain in power for years when his victims are people who typically make for poor witnesses – in this case, petty criminals and drug addicts.

The Reuters investigation, Part 3 of the news agency’s series “The Teflon Robe,” is based on hundreds of pages of confidential sworn testimony, as well as interviews with the judge’s accusers and eight law enforcement officials in Arkansas.

Parker was investigated by the city police, the sheriff’s office, the state police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a federal grand jury over four years, but no charges were brought. Witnesses gave evidence that the judge disclosed the identity of a confidential informant; traded money and opioids for sex; and gave favorable treatment to young women in his courtroom, Reuters found.

As part of its “Teflon Robe” project, Reuters identified and reviewed 1,509 cases from the last dozen years – 2008 through 2019 – in which judges resigned, retired or were publicly disciplined following accusations of misconduct. In addition, the news agency’s investigation identified 3,613 cases from 2008 through 2018 in which states disciplined judges privately – withholding from the public details of their offenses, including the identities of the judges themselves.

Here are four key takeaways from Part 3 of the Reuters investigation, the first comprehensive accounting of judicial misconduct nationally:

* In many states, the lack of aggressive public oversight means that judges may behave with impunity. But a well-staffed and persistent state judicial oversight agency – the exception, not the rule, in the United States – can hold judges to account when other authorities can’t.

* In the unlikely case that judges are publicly charged with misconduct, many states enable judges to simply resign or retire, putting a stop to the charges and any investigation of potential wrongdoing. Reuters found that at least 341 judges across the United States escaped punishment or further investigation in the past dozen years by resigning or retiring amid misconduct allegations.

* By analyzing actions by state oversight commissions over more than a decade, Reuters found that states that deploy fewer resources tend to discipline fewer judges. Nationally, oversight agencies have on average one full-time employee for every 155 judges. Arkansas, which conducts relatively aggressive monitoring, has roughly one staffer for every 53 state judges.

* At least 5,206 people were directly affected by a judge’s misconduct, Reuters found. The victims ranged from people who were illegally jailed to those subjected to racist, sexist and other abusive comments from judges in ways that tainted the cases.

This secret system of resolving cases involving miscreant judges has parallels to how misbehavior by police is handled. “The public has been alerted as it never has been before to the way police misconduct is concealed,” said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University. “The same is true for judges.”

To read this latest chapter of the investigation, click here

To read Part 1, click here

To read Part 2, click here

And to explore our interactive database and read official documents about judicial misconduct, click here

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

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