Complaining About a Judge
If you think the judge in your court case is guilty of misconduct, report it to the state or federal board that oversees judges’ conduct. The following explains the steps you’ll need to take.
It is important to remember, however, that even if your complaint results in the judge being disciplined, it will not affect the outcome of your lawsuit. To have a specific decision changed or reversed, you must take your case to a court of appeals. Judicial conduct organizations are set up only to ensure that judges are competent and fair, not to overturn decisions, however unfair. Also, judicial complaint commissions cannot reimburse or compensate you for losses you’ve incurred as a result of a judge’s misconduct.
What Is Misconduct?
The Judicial Councils Reform and Judicial Conduct and Disabilities Act of 1980 (Section 372 of Title 28 of the United States Code) defines judicial misconduct as “conduct prejudicial to the effective expeditious administration of the business of the courts.” Courts have interpreted this to include fraudulent, corrupt, immoral, illegal and dishonest behavior and any physical or mental incapacity to carry out judicial duties.
This means a judge who repeatedly commits wrongful acts knowing that they violate a rule of law or standard of behavior can be disciplined. For example, a judge who makes repeated racial slurs against litigants can be found guilty of misconduct. A judge found to have a serious mental or physical handicap that interferes in the performance of judicial duties is usually asked to retire or removed from office. However, if you think the judge has made a mistake during your trial or decided your case wrong, you probably won’t succeed in getting the judge investigated for misconduct unless you can prove malice or a repeated pattern of bias or incompetence.
Court-watching groups, usually made up of volunteers, observe and note discrepancies or trends that might help you establish a pattern of misconduct and help you build a case against a specific judge. The Washington Legal Foundation, listed at the end of this guide, can tell you if a court-watching group is active in your area.
Complaints against state court judges are handled differently from state to state, but the procedure for filing a complaint is usually the same. The first thing you need is the name and address of your state agency that handles complaints. You can get it from the American Judicature Society’s Center for Judicial Conduct Organizations, listed at the end of this guide. Your state’s judicial conduct organization, in turn, can tell you where to find the court rules or laws governing the process in your state.
The first step is to send the agency a typed letter, naming the judge, the court, the county and state, and giving a brief-but specific-description of the judge’s misconduct. State that you are requesting an investigation. Don’t forget to include your own name, address and telephone number.
The agency staff will review your complaint for merit. Most complaints are rejected at this stage. An extreme example of a complaint without merit would be a claim that a ruling was unfair because the judge was a woman.
The accused judge is notified of the complaint and given a chance to respond. You and other witnesses may be interviewed. After this, the complaint may be dismissed for lack of evidence. If it is not dismissed, the agency has two options:
Private Discipline. If the wrongdoing is not considered serious enough for formal sanctions, the judge will be admonished in a private letter ordering that the conduct not be repeated. Most states require that complaints handled this way be kept confidential. This means the general public will never know a complaint was filed, much less that misconduct was acknowledged.
Public Discipline. If the agency thinks the case is serious enough, it can recommend a formal hearing. The state’s supreme court appoints special judges to conduct a fact-finding hearing and decides whether to dismiss the case, issue a public reprimand, or remove the judge from the bench. About half the states require that proceedings be made public once they reach a formal hearing but some states do not make proceedings public until final action by the state’s supreme court.
The procedure for disciplining federal court judges is contained in the Judicial Councils Reform and Judicial Conduct and Disabilities Act. It applies to all federal courts except the U.S. Supreme Court. Grounds for discipline are similar to those at the state level.
Submit a typewritten statement of your complaint to the clerk of the chief judge in your judicial circuit. Each circuit encompasses several states. For example, to complain about a bankruptcy judge in Seattle, file a complaint with the chief judge of the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. View a map of the circuits below.
Downloaded from US Court System Web site at (www.uscourts.gov/links.html).
The clerk will send a copy of your complaint to the chief judge and another to the judge you are accusing. (If your complaint is against the chief judge, it will be reviewed by the judge next highest in seniority.) The judge can dismiss complaints considered frivolous, that do not address misconduct or disability spelled out in the law, or that concern only the merits of your particular case.
The reviewing judge can take “appropriate corrective action”-privately asking the accused judge for assurance that the questioned behavior will be corrected.
If the complaint is neither dismissed nor privately resolved, the judge appoints a committee to investigate and report to the judicial council of the circuit. When the council receives the report, it usually investigates further and gives accused judges an opportunity to respond.
The council either dismisses the complaint or issues some discipline, public or private, short of removal from the bench. (The council can remove bankruptcy judges and magistrates from office, but not district or circuit judges.) If you are not satisfied with the council’s decision, you can ask the Judicial Conference of the United States to review your case, but it has no obligation to do so.
If the council feels a district or circuit judge should be removed from office, it recommends impeachment to the Judicial Conference. If the conference agrees that grounds for impeachment exist, it notifies the House of Representatives.
In Michigan you can file an impeachment petition and send it to the House of Representatives. Civil Rights Act 1963
American Judicature Society
The Opperman Center
2700 University Ave.
Des Moines, Iowa 50311
Phone: (515) 271-2281
Fax: (515) 279-3090
Center for Judicial Accountability Inc.
P.O. Box 8220
White Plains, NY 10602
Phone: (914) 421-1200
Fax: (914) 428-4994
Washington Legal Foundation
2009 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
Web site: http://www.wlf.org
©2010 HALT, Inc., All rights reserved.