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Teflon Robe: 5 takeaways from Reuters' investigation of misconduct by U.S. judges

(Reuters) - Thousands of state and local judges across the United States were allowed to keep their positions on the bench after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold, a Reuters investigation found.

Montgomery Municipal Court is seen in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. To match Special Report USA-JUDGES/MISCONDUCT REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

For its “Teflon Robe” project, Reuters 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, reporters identified another 3,613 cases from 2008 through 2018 in which states disciplined wayward judges but kept hidden from the public key details of their offenses – including the identities of the judges themselves.

The Reuters report focuses on a longtime Alabama judge who once sentenced a single mother to 496 days behind bars over unpaid traffic tickets. That judge, Les Hayes, plans to resign this week, years after the judge admitted to failing to “respect and comply with the law.”

Since 2000, Hayes has served as a municipal judge in Montgomery. According to the state’s Judicial Inquiry Commission, Hayes broke state and federal laws by jailing hundreds of Montgomery residents, many of them Black, who were too poor to pay fines.

In 2016, Hayes admitted in court documents to violating 10 different parts of the state’s judicial conduct code. Despite his admission, Hayes reached a deal with the Alabama judicial commission to serve an 11-month unpaid suspension. He subsequently was rehired as a judge by the Montgomery City Council despite a community outcry.

Here are five key takeaways from our investigation, the first comprehensive accounting of judicial misconduct nationally:

* Nine of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct.

* At least 5,206 people were directly affected by a judge’s misconduct. The victims cited in disciplinary documents 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.

* Each state has an oversight agency to investigate charges of judicial misconduct. But the clout of these commissions is limited, and their authority differs from state to state. To remove a judge, all but a handful of states require approval of a panel that includes other judges. And most states seldom exercise the full extent of those disciplinary powers.

* In many states, the system of handling judicial misconduct allegations errs on the side of protecting the rights and reputations of judges, not on the concerns of the complainant.

* One longtime Alabama judge who concurrently served on the state’s judicial oversight commission remained on the bench for three years after being accused of violating the same nepotism rules he was tasked with enforcing. After Reuters repeatedly pressed the judge and the state judicial commission about the matter, the judge retired from the bench as part of a deal with Alabama authorities to end the investigation.

To read the full investigation, click here

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