Judges Are Angry in America—Especially at the Most Vulnerable

The targets, who are often vulnerable people, including the poor and survivors of sexual or domestic violence, have little recourse.

[Photo: A judge looks on as a woman walks away from the bench, hand on her head.]
When the tempers of judges flare, average citizens can face increased fines, harsher sentences, even jail time. Shutterstock.com

When veteran Bill Baker took batteries, discarded outside a business in Ohio, for recycling, it was because the batteries seemed to have been left for the public, with a sign stating “free.” Unfortunately, the sign had been placed there by mistake, and Baker was charged with grand theft. At a pretrial hearing, the judge angrily dismissed the case, lectured the attorneys about how busy he was, and ordered Baker to pay court fees.

When he said he could not afford to, the judge demanded to know how much money Baker had in his pockets. It was fifty dollars. The judge threatened to hold Baker in contempt of court unless he paid all of it. Baker said in an interview with Rewire.News: “It made me realize our justice system has some real holes in it.”

The American Bar Association states under Standard 6-3.4 of its Special Functions of the Trial Judge that the general responsibility of a trial judge is to “remain neutral regarding the proceedings at all times, suppress personal predilections, control his or her temper and emotions, and be patient, respectful, and courteous to defendants, jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.” But countless examples exist of judges allowing their emotions to control and influence their behavior and decisions when acting within their official capacity.

Although judges often see the worst aspects of human behavior, the service they perform demands professionalism and responsibility, and they must approach their role with a level of detachment to achieve just and fair outcomes. For many people, however, especially in civil and family court, that’s not the kind of judge they face. And the targets of judges’ anger or unprofessional behavior, often vulnerable people, including survivors of violence and the poor, have few options for justice.

Judges behaving badly persists across the country and throughout the courts, from Judge Robert Restaino jailing 46 people in a fury after a cell phone interruption to Judge William Hooks forced to take anger management classes because of his emotional courtroom behavior.

This month, Judge Marvin Adames of New Jersey faces an ethics charge after he jailed a woman in 2016 for nearly a month because he said she was disrespectful. And in May 2017, Judge John F. Russo Jr. was removed from the bench and accused of courtroom impropriety based on the aggressive manner in which he questioned a survivor of sexual assault.

Repeatedly, the targets of judges’ outbursts are survivors of sexual or domestic violence. In October, a judicial commission dismissed an ethics complaint against Judge Kenneth Walker of Oregon, lodged after he had thrice interrupted a domestic violence survivor reading her victim impact statement in his court; he walked out of the courtroom on her before she had finished.

Judge Jerri Collins of Florida became the focus of national media attention in 2015 when she used sarcasm and shouting to belittle a domestic violence victim for failing to testify against her abuser. The victim is seen in a viral video tearfully begging the judge not to send her to jail for failing to appear. Judge Collins’ response to the victim saying her anxiety was a factor in her inability to face her abuser in court? “You think you have anxiety now? You haven’t even seen anxiety!”

She sentenced the victim to three days in jail.

When the tempers of judges flare, the consequences to average citizens can be dire: increased fines, harsher sentences, even jail time. But judges face few, if any, repercussions for their bad behavior in court.

The Florida Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Judge Collins for improper behavior. In the hearing Justice LaBarga stated, “Judge Collins, this is indeed a sad day for you, a sad day for the people of Florida and a sad day for the judiciary upon which our people depend for justice.” Although this reprimand may have been embarrassing, it did not strip her of her position, and does little to ensure that Judge Collins did not or will not berate the next domestic violence victim in her path.

In 2017, the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission received 593 judicial complaints that argued that a judge could not or was not performing their job properly. But the commission only filed formal charges on two complaints.

When formal charges are entered, an accused judge may face censure from the state Supreme Court or be removed from their position. But because so few cases are investigated, many judges will never face formal charges.

Earlier this year, in a Hamilton County, Ohio, courthouse, Magistrate Michael Bachman was caught on a security video running after a woman whom he felt had disrupted his court proceeding by arguing with staff in the hall. In the video, the judge was red-faced and livid as he hurried out of the courtroom and down the hall. Once he found the woman, he yelled at her, repeatedly pointing, put his hand on her back, and physically forced her to his courtroom where he sentenced her to three days in jail.

In one year alone, 2017, the Ohio Office of Disciplinary Counsel received 491 complaints against state judges, dismissing 350 of them. Between the years of 2013 and 2017, the Disciplinary Counsel investigated only 506 complaints of judicial misconduct.

The agencies tasked to monitor and investigate these complaints against judges are comprised of lawyers. As such, the agencies have an incentive not to investigate. The legal community is a small, tight knit group of people who often must rely on each other for client referrals, judicial appointments, and promotions within the state and federal judicial structure and within private practice.

The first day of law school orientation, professors tell students that to be successful you must network with other attorneys, which requires a lot of nights spent at the bar during happy hour. But what law schools fail to teach is the need to hold your colleagues to a high level of professionalism and conduct. Networking is vital to your success; therefore, you must stay quiet when you see other attorneys—or judges—behaving badly.

This silence against inappropriate anger and misconduct reaches all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Countless signs existed that Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas were unable to control their emotions and exhibited bad behavior on and off the bench, but many witnesses stayed silent, out of fear of reprisal, until these men had reached potential appointments to the highest court in our nation.

Too many times judges fall far short of the standard of impartial arbitrators of the law, and too many statistics show the unwillingness of supervising agencies to investigate and sanction. Judges allow their biases, emotions, and prejudice to color their professional behavior, which can result in life-altering consequences for the people in their courtrooms—and there aren’t a lot places for victims to turn. As Baker said, “the legal system is not here to serve the people.”