It has been a busy month offline at the Ethickingdom (and I promise this is the first and last time I will ever use that term, eech). You know that saying, you wait ages for the bus and then two come at once? I had my first and second ever Supreme Court of Wisconsin arguments within a four-week span, plus the rest of my work.
Today, on this rainy Saturday, I am slightly up for air, and I will bring you some recent Judges Behaving Badly news. Today you get a twofer.
First, Lincoln County District Judge Traci Soderstrom is facing removal from the bench for allegedly sending and receiving more than 500 text messages in the middle of a murder trial, among other things (like trying to take and display in her office pictures of men sitting in hot pink chairs, making extrajudicial comments about issues in pending cases on Facebook, and a bunch of other problems that seem mundane by comparison).
The petition for removal is available here, and recites numerous violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which I will not reproduce here because it is voluminous.
What stood out to me as a disciplinary defense lawyer was the degree to which this judge—who was new to her role but, according to her campaign website, had been practicing law for two decades and was admitted to the Supreme Court of the United States—failed or refused to acknowledge that not only was it improper to be constantly texting from the bench during a murder trial, but also the content of the texts was improper regardless of when they were sent.
These were not Slack messages reporting a buzzing light fixture to facilities or asking a bailiff to escort the jurors back into the courtroom (I don’t know if courts use Slack for this purpose but it would not seem improper if they did), or texts to the babysitter advising them of what time the judge would be home (which probably should not be sent while trial is occurring but nobody would quibble with the contents). These texts were to and from her bailiff, commenting about the merits of the case, the credibility and attractiveness of witnesses, the size of prosecutors’ hands and other body parts. There were exchanges about what jury instructions would best lead to the judge’s preferred outcome (among other things).
Our second contestant today comes from Texas, where Southern District of Texas Bankruptcy Judge David Jones is facing a misconduct complaint for having been in an intimate, cohabitating relationship with a lawyer, Elizabeth Freeman (his former law clerk, which may or may not be a separate issue), whose firm colleagues practiced before him for several years. He approved substantial fee applications that including billings from her directly and billings from which she would benefit financially, and apparently acted as a mediator in at least one of her cases. He did not disclose the relationship in any of these cases.
This complaint is brief, and straightforward. Judges are not supposed to hear cases involving their romantic partners or award fees from which their partners will benefit. At the very least, disclosing that your paramour is a partner in the firm representing one of the litigants (and then allowing the litigants to consent to you hearing the case, or not) is important.
Judges are human. Like the rest of us, they swear, they blow off steam, they have a sense of humor (or, at least, they should), they date, cohabitate, marry, and divorce. The Hon. Gary Wilcox lip synch thing doesn’t bug me all that much (though perhaps he shouldn’t have channeled Nas or Beavis and Butthead in the courthouse). It’s a myth that judges don’t have biases—of course they do, and those biases do inform how they go about their duties and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise—but there are lines. The lines aren’t always clear but if the allegations in these complaints are true, the lines have been crossed.