A Code of Judicial Conduct guides what a judge can and cannot do in her personal and professional life, according to the American Bar Association. Judges who violate one or more of the rules contained within the Code of Judicial Conduct risk disciplinary action, sanctions and even disbarment.
Code of Judicial Conduct
The Code of Judicial Conduct includes four canons, or principles. These principles govern a judge’s impartiality, proper and improper behavior and how a judge performs her job. These principles also cover how a judge can act when she is not at work so she minimizes or outright eliminates any conflicts of interest. Finally, these principles cover what a judge can and cannot do if running for public office or working on someone’s political campaign. Failing to uphold one of these four canons can be an ethics violation, which can result in disciplinary action. Failing to uphold the rules of professional conduct set by the American Bar Association or other state or federal ethics codes can also be grounds for discipline.
If a judge is found guilty of committing an ethics violation, then she faces one or more sanctions or types of disciplinary action. These sanctions can range from a private admonition or public reprimand to suspension and, in extreme cases, removal and disbarment. Sanctions can also include imposing limits on her judicial duties. Judges can face other sanctions as well, which vary by state. Tennessee’s board of judicial conduct, for example, may opt to publicly censure a judge found guilty of an ethics violation. A public censure is a letter that spells out the judge’s wrongdoing and may include the corrective action the judge must take.
Conduct that can result in an ethics violation include yelling or swearing in a courtroom, using her judgeship for personal gain or to advance the interests of someone else, commenting on a pending case or ruling on a case where she is related to one or more parties involves, such as an attorney or defendant. Judges also must avoid practicing law. In 2013, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct reprimanded a judge who advised his girlfriend about a legal matter. Also in 2013, the Judicial Tenure Commission in Detroit investigated a judge who was accused of closing his courtroom during a murder trial to victims, families and the media.
The state-specific judicial oversight body reviews complaints about judicial misconduct. Complaints can come from people or from other sources. For example, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in Texas may base allegations of judicial misconduct on news articles, information uncovered during an investigation and from a person, anonymous or not.
Investigations and Hearings
After receiving a complaint about a judge’s behavior, an investigation will take place. Who investigates such complaints depends on the state where you live. In Tennessee, its board of judicial conduct investigates and acts on complaints against judges. In Ohio, a disciplinary counsel investigates such complaints. If the investigation turns up enough evidence to suggest professional misconduct occurred, then a hearing is held. In Ohio, the board of commissioners on grievances and discipline holds the hearing, while in Indiana, a commission under the auspices of the Indiana Supreme Court does.
- American Bar Association: Model Code of Judicial Conduct
- American Bar Association: Model Rules for Judicial Disciplinary Enforcement
- Tennessee State Courts: Disciplinary Actions
- Indiana Judicial Branch Division of State Court Administration: The Complaint and Disciplinary Process
- FindLaw.com: Complaints Against Judges
- Black Blue Dog: Detroit Judge Faces Disciplinary Action for Flaunting the Law
William Henderson has been writing for newspapers, magazines and journals for more than 15 years. He served as editor of the "New England Blade" and is a former contributor to "The Advocate." His work has also appeared on The Good Men Project, Life By Me and The Huffington Post.