Commentary: The Hathaway Effect

By Paul Fletcher

Dolan Media Newswires

Michigan has been on a streak of sorts. In the last year, any number of incidents involving judges behaving badly has made the headlines.

Call it the Hathaway Effect: Look at all the time and attention paid to Diane Hathaway, a sitting Supreme Court justice who resigned over personal financial shenanigans, then pleaded guilty to a felony in federal court. Whenever there is a judicial impropriety as high profile as Hathaway's, you're going to see more scrutiny paid to the doings of all judges.

Consider these incidents:

* Richard Caretti, a Macomb County Circuit Court judge, is being investigated by state Child Protective Services. Caretti was in a car last month with his two daughters, 12 and 15, while his girlfriend, Brenda Conway, was driving with a reported blood alcohol level of 0.18.

* Last year, James Justin, a district court judge in Jackson, was removed from the bench by the Supreme Court after the Judicial Tenure Commission accused him of several abuses of judicial power, in addition to fixing his own parking ticket. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to four misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty.

* Wade McCree, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, was suspended without pay Feb. 8 by the Supreme Court after being censured in October 2012 for texting shirtless photos of himself.

* Ken Post, a district court judge in Hudsonville, is being targeted by the JTC for a 90-day suspension without pay by the JTC after jailing Stanton attorney Scott Millard in December 2011, because Millard did not allow his 20-year-old client to answer questions about his recent drug use.

You have to ask: What's going on? Does Michigan have a higher percentage of judges getting into trouble?

The National Center for State Courts is a clearinghouse for information, but doesn't keep those statistics.

Take a look at the incidents above, then review the following list of cases from the past 15 years or so, and you'll conclude that Michigan has no monopoly on jurists getting into trouble:

* A city judge in Albany, N.Y., was censured for jumping down from the bench, doffing his robe and challenging a defendant to fight.

* A juvenile judge in Virginia was removed from the bench for directing a litigant in a custody case to lower her pants in court --twice--to show an alleged wound. The Supreme Court of Virginia also cited an incident in which this judge decided Christmas visitation by flipping a coin.

* A Philadelphia traffic judge was disciplined after he shared a slideshow on his phone with a young woman working with the court. It had snaps of his mom, his church, his children, and, um, his manhood. He defended a judicial ethics claim by arguing that he forgot he'd taken the last picture. The authorities didn't buy it, finding that anyone who takes a photo of what a local reporter called "the lower court" would remember.

* A Mississippi judge held court in a business he owned -- a combination pawn shop and tire store, sometimes late into the night. When he asked a clerk to fetch a file from the courthouse at 11:30 p.m., she responded she'd get it in the morning. He had her arrested, and brought back before him from jail at 1:30 a.m. He was suspended from the bench.

* A judge in Maryland pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after deflating the tires on the courthouse cleaning lady's tires. Really. His response? He didn't like where she had parked.

The Michigan JTC and its counterparts in other states always seem to have their hands full, seeking to keep jurists in line. In a state where judges are elected, though, count on vox populi to render the ultimate judgment.

Just ask Sylvia James, the former Inkster district judge who was removed from the bench by the Supreme Court in 2012 for a number of transgressions, including misuse of funds and nepotism. Last fall, she wanted her job back and ran for the district seat. She was trounced by a 66-34 percent margin.

Published: Thu, Feb 21, 2013

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