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Unethical US Judges Often Get Away With Misconduct, Newspaper Finds

Posted Dec 14, 2009 9:32 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Citizens filed 6,000 misconduct complaints against federal judges in the last decade, but only seven faced formal disciplinary action, a newspaper investigation has found.

“Federal judges have made illegal campaign contributions, falsified court records, and illegally concealed cash gifts and gambling debts,” the Houston Chronicle reports. “Many more have engaged in unethical or irresponsible acts, according to an investigation by the Houston Chronicle of more than 3,000 judicial misconduct matters nationwide and analysis of related records over 10 years.

“Most get away with it.”

The story points out, however, that many of the misconduct complaints are filed by unhappy litigants or convicted prisoners and deserve to be dismissed.

Most disciplinary reviews remain secret, the story says. Chief judges alone decide whether to conduct even a limited review of a disciplinary complaint. Rarely, committees are appointed to investigate.

At first, the sexual harassment complaint against U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent of Galveston resulted in only a reprimand in September 2007. After the Houston Chronicle investigated, a criminal probe was launched, the story says. The result: Kent pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to judges during the secret investigation. He resigned before an impeachment trial.

“Other documents show Kent had drawn complaints about bias and bursts of temper that were quietly and anonymously handled years before his admitted alcohol, emotional and judgment problems landed him behind bars,” the story says.

Another federal judge, Colorado Chief District Judge Edward Nottingham, had faced at least seven formal complaints, first for abuse of power and bias, and then for alleged criminal violations. Two investigating committees were appointed to look into allegations. No charges were filed and no disciplinary action was taken before Nottingham resigned.

The resignation came after press reports alleged he used an escort service. Later, the press detailed a complaint by one prostitute who said Nottingham had coached her to lie to investigators.

Related coverage:

Houston Chronicle: “Despite troubles, some on bench keep salaries”

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