The Republican members on the Alabama Supreme Court have rejected proposals to make it easier for the public to file complaints accusing judges of unethical conduct. The court’s eight Republicans voted to maintain rules that many believe puts Alabama out of step with the rest of the country. The ruling clearly was designed to stifle complaints. The rules include giving a judge, who has been accused of impropriety, the name of the person who filed a complaint, what the complaint entails and any evidence gathered during the investigation of the complaint.
Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb urged her colleagues to replace the rules with those recommended by a committee of the American Bar Association. The Chief Justice wrote in her dissent that the current rules impose requirements that exist in no other state and “engender a fear of retribution” among anyone who complains about a judge. She asked a pretty good question in her dissent: “Why would the highest court in Alabama make it more difficult to discipline an unethical judge?” Interestingly, the eight Republicans did not explain the majority’s reasoning in their order of April 1st. Also, I find it most interesting that the order was not publicly announced. It appears that the Associated Press learned about the ruling from court officials. In any event, I believe the eight members of the Court should rethink what they have done in the ruling and make the necessary changes.
The Alabama Supreme Court sets the rules for the Judicial Inquiry Commission. In 2001, when Roy Moore was Chief Justice, the Supreme Court changed the commission’s rules to no longer protect the identity of people filing complaints. The Court wrote rules providing a judge with detailed information about a complaint, including who filed it, what evidence is gathered, and who is interviewed during the investigation. That was a drastic change. The Supreme Court made the rule changes retroactive so that they applied to charges the Commission had brought against then-Supreme Court Justice Harold See. Candidate See had been accused of running false and misleading ads against Roy Moore in the 2000 Republican primary for Chief Justice, which See lost. The case against See was subsequently dropped.
According to the American Judicature Society, a nonprofit group that works to maintain the integrity of the courts, Alabama’s rules appear to be designed to discourage complaints about judges and give more rights to judges than Defendants in criminal courts are entitled to. That’s not good in my opinion.
The ABA’s Standing Committee on Professional Discipline, which studied Alabama’s rules at the Supreme Court’s request, recommended undoing several of the 2001 rule changes, including notification of the complainant and providing evidence while the investigation is in progress. The committee found that telling a judge who filed a complaint “has a chilling effect on those who may want to file a complaint against a judge.” The committee noted that complaints dropped significantly after the 2001 rule change that required a person’s identity to be disclosed.
In Chief Justice Cobb’s dissent, she ended by saying: “How this court’s action – or inaction – today might serve to engender the ‘respect of the people’ that is so necessary for its existence, I cannot imagine.” The bottom line is that few lawyers will file a complaint against a judge he or she must practice before. The same would be true for a fellow judge who might need to file a complaint against a colleague. I really believe the eight justices on the Court made a most serious mistake and one that will be impossible to defend over time. Fortunately, they have the opportunity to right what most Alabamians – in my opinion – believe was a mistake!
Source: Associated Press
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