Sunday, November 17, 2019

Conferences and Consequences

The Indiana Supreme Court recently rendered three consolidated decisions regarding Indiana judges. The first is In the Matter of the Honorable Andrew Adams (19S-JD-386); the other two are similarly styled but name Honorable Bradley B. Jacobs (19S-JD-566) and Honorable Sabrina R. Bell (19S-JD-567). It is a somewhat curious set of facts that ends with the Court's conclusion that these three judges will each be suspended without pay, a consequence of their decisions and (lack of) judgement. Some may argue that two of the three have been punished sufficiently already, but read on.

Two of the judges are from Clark County, Indiana (near Louisville, KY), the third from Crawford County (west from Louisville and Clarke County, toward Evansville). The judges found themselves in Indianapolis in May 2019 for a judicial conference (seemingly a chance for education and professional development). The Court concluded that they then behaved in an "injudicious manner," which devolved into violence, led to criminal behavior (on the part of the judges and others), and ended with two of the judges hospitalized with serious gunshot wounds. The incident made the national news, it is seemingly rare that Indiana makes the national news, unless it has to do with automobiles, basketball, or the weather. 

Courtesy CBS4Indy.com 

The Court noted that the judge's behavior was "embarrassing on a personal level," but more importantly "discredited the entire Indiana judiciary." Oh, Springtime Indiana. You know, springtime when all judges thoughts turn to heavy drinking, strip clubs, and White Castle hamburgers? Not. Some of you may not recognize the Castle. In college (I attended college about 60 miles from Indianapolis), we lamented and derided the absence of a local White Castle. The nearest one at that time was in Indianapolis. 

I knew many people that drove to get a "slider" as those little grease-pills were often called. But, I cannot recall ever knowing anyone to drive to Indy for one sober. It was a different era. Drinking and driving was just coming to the fore. Mothers Against Drunk Driving had just been formed (1980), and a great many people were all too eager to take an alcohol-fueled road trip for greasy late night food. In those days, any admission of having consumed White Castle was jovially met with accusations that alcohol was involved. Perhaps some things never change? 

The three Indiana judges, with two to four years each on the bench, arrived in Indianapolis, checked in to their hotel, and began drinking. Then, "at around 3:00 a.m., the group walked to a strip club," which was closed. Hint, if you are headed to a strip club at 3:00 a.m. "Danger Will Robinson." Thus, exercising their best judgement, they then "walked to a nearby White Castle." For whatever reason, they did not enter, but "stood outside." It is possible that it was closed or open for drive through only, but I have wondered why they stayed in the parking lot. At about 3:17, two men "drove past the group and shouted something out the window." 

One judge, the lady in the group, "extended her middle finger to" them in response and may have spoken, leading the motorists to park and get out to engage the judges in a deeper philosophical conversation. Deep philosophy and sharing ideas is common at 3:17 a.m. in parking lots? This interaction was recorded on video, which helped the Court apparently, because the level of intoxication allegedly made the judges' recollections a bit hazy. As the situation escalated, our intrepid judicial tourists made no attempt to "move to another location in the parking lot to avoid a confrontation or de-escalate the conflict." The shouting turned physical. One of the judges beat one of the motorists (apparently quite soundly). Then, one of motorists "shot Judge Adams once, and shot Judge Jacobs twice." Imagine that, a drunken melee at 03:00 turning from a beat-down into a shooting? No one could have seen that coming (sarcasm). 

The getting shot part is where some might argue that those two of the three judges have been sufficiently punished. Both underwent emergency surgeries. That is a very serious consequence of dumb behavior, and some sympathy for their suffering is both natural and appropriate. Both were tested at the hospital and demonstrated significant blood alcohol (0.157 and 0.13 respectively). The "middle finger" lady judge was not tested, but the Court reminded she was "intoxicated enough that she (says she) lacks any memory of the incident." Judge Bell did admit that she "drink(s) and get mouthy," and I’m fiery and I’m feisty." 

A grand jury indicted one judge (Adams) for multiple counts of battery regarding his physical assault on the motorist that night. There were charges of disorderly conduct against another (Jacobs). The "middle finger" judge, the lady in the group, was not charged. It is entirely possible that Judge Bell instigated the whole confrontation, beat down, and shooting devolution. Judge Adams later "admitted to kicking Kaiser (motorist) in a rude, insolent, or angry manner" (is there another way to kick someone?). Despite being sentenced to a year in jail, the privileged judge was allowed to serve only two days in jail. One may wonder why 99.99% of the sentence was suspended for this jurist who beat and kicked a motorist. Some might contend that itself might cause some to be curious about the Indiana judicial system. Or, perhaps such suspension of battery convicts is the norm in Indiana? 

The Court cites the Code of Judicial Conduct regarding integrity, public confidence, and impartiality. It mentions that judges must refrain from "participating in extrajudicial activities that would appear to a reasonable person to undermine" these qualities or the public's perception (verbal and physical assaults). The Court mentions that judges must "respect and comply with the law." Therefore, "Judges . . . must remain vigilant to guard against any actions that erode that public trust." Admittedly, that is quite a burden. It is not easy to live by the Code of Judicial Conduct, trust me. But, it is a burden for which we volunteer; it is not involuntarily thrust upon us. 

And, the Court concluded that these judges' "alcohol-fueled actions . . . fell far short of the Code’s directive." The Judges admitted that "their misconduct damaged the public’s respect for and confidence in the" state's courts. The Court found mitigating factors including no history of judicial or legal discipline, that they each accepted responsibility for their behavior, and their enrollment in counselling programs (presumably for alcohol, perhaps for stress, anger, or other issues). 

The Court did note that two of the judges "suffered serious physical injuries." And, that the "middle finger" judge attempted to stop the physical confrontation, sought help from those inside of White Castle once the fighting started, and called 911 immediately when the shooting began. The "middle finger" judge who apparently instigated things with her unladylike sign language was thus seen as striving to later deescalate what she perhaps started. But hey, she's just "fiery" and "feisty." In her defense, I suspect she is neither the first or last judge that has engaged such sign language communication. 

The Court concluded that all three should be suspended from the bench. The "middle finger" judge who may have started it all (Bell) received "a 30-day suspension without pay,“ as did Judge Jacobs. The Court characterized this as "among the most severe sanctions short of removal from office." Judge Adams was "suspended without pay . . . for sixty (60) days." These judges are earning about $130,000 per year (about $11,000 per month). The financial penalty is therefore significant. 

From any perspective, it was a disgraceful set of events and Court conclusions. In the end, all three judges are certainly lucky to be alive. Whether the Court was severe enough in its punishment is up to the reader. 

The story reminded me of a 2017 Florida story New Broward judge accused of drunken, anti-Hispanic comments at judicial conference. This reported on a judge attending a judicial conference, consuming alcohol, and then making untoward comments to a worker at the host hotel. That led to the Office of the Public Defender filing to disqualify the judge based on the perceptions of expressed animus or bias. Such perceptions, and the legal machinations that follow disrupt the judicial process. They affect how the public views the judge, and more importantly the entire justice process. And, it all began with alcohol. 

It also reminded me of Judge Arrested on Intoxication Charge. That case was memorable for me because I had been on the bench for only weeks when it broke. I was just beginning to study judicial ethics and the Code of Conduct. This judge was arrested at a conference. She was discovered by a security guard at about 2:00 a.m. laying "in a third-floor hallway." Allegedly, "she was wearing no pants or underpants." When the guard approached, she reportedly arose and fled." She was apprehended, and when police arrived to take custody she "was extremely intoxicated and verbally combative." In the police car, as she was taken to detention, the judge made allegations that she had been the victim of a sexual assault. There was discussion in the article about something being placed into her drink by a person or persons unknown. 

These instances are all of interest to me. They share some characteristics. Each involved a judicial conference of some kind; Judges away from their actual work environment for important enrichment and educational experiences that were nonetheless work. Each involved alcohol, and some apparently involved significant volumes of it. Two of the events involved very late night activities. And, all three likely affected the public's perception of the judiciary and those who serve. 

I was privileged to mentor a Boy Scout troop for several years. I got to work with some great volunteers who were devoting their time. It was common for that to include various opportunities for wisdom to be conveyed to youths. One of my favorites repeatedly came from a wizened scout leader. He would tell the scouts "nothing good happens after midnight." He would relate this to various situations, and encourage the scouts to remember that in their futures, in college, in life, etc. Essentially: "by midnight, be off the roads, in your bed." 

Perhaps that wisdom would have helped some of the judges in these situations. Perhaps, instead, ill circumstances will find us regardless of our efforts. It is certainly hard to prevent someone putting something in your drink. But, you rarely hear about these kind of situations occurring at 9:30 p.m. in the hotel bar. I would suggest that once you have decided, at 3:00 a.m. to visit a strip club as a judicial field trip, the engine is off the rails and it only remains to be seen how long it will take for the rest of the train to follow. Nothing good is going to happen from a 3:00 a.m. trip off-campus in search of excitement. In such a search for excitement, the odds are you will find it, and odds are it will not be good. 

Judges must remain persistently cognizant of their role and responsibilities. Perhaps it is best to simply remain sober in public? I enjoy a drink as much as the next person, but I have made a conscious decision not to publicly exceed three drinks, and never drive after consuming. If we are not going to remain sober, perhaps one might commit to remain in the host hotel? If leaving, maybe inviting along a fellow judge that is sober might help with judgement and driving? I also enjoy a good hamburger like anyone else, but if it is 3:00 a.m., maybe not at such a venue? Perhaps a "hard rule" against communicating with sign language, verbally accosting passers by, or physically beating/kicking those you accost? Imagine the different outcome if these three Indiana judges had simply ordered a bottle of alcohol and some hamburgers from room service? 

Judgement is imperfect. Retrospect is 20/20. We will all make mistakes, missteps, and misstatements. There is simply too much human in our human nature. But we can strive against the potentials; strive to avoid the high risks. We must work to identify situations that are more likely to deteriorate than others, and to avoid them. We cannot be perfect, but we can work to minimize our exposure to situations in which trouble might find us. And, we simply must. It is an embarrassing day for Indiana. Possibly there is more to the story that the Court chose not to publicize, more mitigation or consideration. But, if the published facts are complete, there are some who would conclude that these three judges simply have no place in the judiciary. In years of considering judicial applicants, I can never remember anyone touting their qualifications with "appoint/elect me judge," "I’m fiery and I’m feisty." 

I find myself chagrined to be associated, however remotely (geographically, temperamentally, ideologically), with these jurists. As much as it is a sad and embarrassing day for Indiana, I would suggest that it is a sad day for our justice system, and the public's faith in it. Can the public possibly not see the disgrace? Can they possibly forgive it?