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Judicial Discipline

Neighboring states’
disciplinary bodies

Michigan – Judicial Tenure Commission

Five lower court judges, consisting of one appellate court judge, one circuit court judge, one probate, one municipal and one elected by the State Bar, as well as two attorneys elected by the State Bar and two laypersons appointed by the governor. Complaints are investigated and disciplinary recommendations are submitted by the commission to the Supreme Court which issues a final decision.

Illinois – Illinois Courts Commission

Composed of one Supreme Court justice, two Appellate Court judges, two Circuit Court judges and two citizens, the commission has the authority, after notice from the Judicial Inquiry Board and public hearing, to discipline judges for willful misconduct in office.

Minnesota – Board on Judicial Standards

An independent state agency comprised of one appellate court judge, three trial court judges, two attorneys who have practiced at least 10 years and four non-lawyer members appointed by the governor with consent of the state Senate. The board receives and acts upon complaints about Minnesota judges for judicial misconduct or wrongdoing and submits recommendations to the Supreme Court for final decision.

With the Wisconsin Judicial Commission’s filing of a complaint against Justice Annette K. Ziegler and recommending that she be reprimanded for allegedly engaging in judicial misconduct, the case will now move into the hands of a three-judge Judicial Conduct Panel.

Following a four-month investigation, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission (WJC) on Sept. 6 filed a formal complaint with the state Supreme Court alleging the misconduct. Once the Judicial Conduct Panel hears the matter, it will report its findings to the Supreme Court. The six justices who sit on the high court, with Ziegler, their newest colleague, will then review the report and make any final decisions regarding potential discipline.

That process is somewhat different from the judicial review process in some of Wisconsin’s neighboring states. While Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota all have authoritative bodies to review complaints and recommend discipline against judges, the manner in which they do so often differs from Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Judicial Commission (WJC) formally commenced an investigation on April 20 into whether Ziegler, then a Washington County Circuit Court judge, violated the judicial code of conduct. The original complaint alleged she contravened state statutes, which preclude a judge from presiding over cases when there is a potential conflict of interest. In Ziegler’s case, she sat on numerous cases involving a bank where her husband served on the board of directors.

Alternative Approaches

Following the Judicial Conduct Panel’s finding, Ziegler will be subject to review by her fellow justices. Officials from several neighboring states have noted that discipline of sitting justices is rare, but when an incident does arise involving a member of the state’s high court, the full panel of justices typically does not oversee discipline.

Within the last decade, Illinois dealt with a misconduct complaint filed against a sitting chief justice who was disciplined. James D. Heiple resigned his post as chief justice in 1997 after a formal investigation by the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board.

The grievance arose out of a 1996 traffic violation against Heiple, who was uncooperative during the incident, according to the filed complaint.

Heiple was ultimately censured by the Illinois Courts Commission for “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice and conduct that brings the judicial office into disrepute.” He continued to serve as a justice until 2000, but did not seek retention.

“Usually a complaint is filed with the Inquiry Board, or if it is aware of a situation — this one was all over the news — it takes up the investigation,” said Joseph Tybor, Illinois Supreme Court Press Secretary. “If it sees cause, the board will file a formal complaint, which essentially serves the purpose of an indictment. It is then heard before courts commission, which can rule anything from censure to removal of a judge.”

Illinois uses a two-tiered system of re-view and discipline. The ruling body, the Illinois Courts Commission, has only one justice who is appointed by the Supreme Court. The remainder of the commission consists of two appellate court and two circuit court judges along with two non-lawyer members appointed by the governor.

“The Courts Commission is a constitutionally created body and while some states do have the Supreme Court as the sole disciplinary authority, the Illinois commission has only one justice to help insulate the court from an obvious conflicting situation,” said Tybor, who has been press secretary since 1998. “Six justices are not ruling on the seventh. The commission members are the ones who hear evidence presented by the board, then deliberate and hand out discipline if warranted.”

Minnesota Experience

Action would have been taken in Minnesota against Justice John J. Todd, who retired in 1985 after the Board of Judicial Standards brought a complaint against him for cheating on the multistate bar exam.

Todd contested the board’s findings and the matter was set to go before the Court of Appeals, which sits on these matters when a Supreme Court Justice is involved, according to John Kostouros, Court Information Officer and Communications Director for the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“Normally the Supreme Court is the final say on lawyer and judge discipline, but Justice Todd retired before the case went any further,” said Kostouros.

The 10-member Minnesota board is comprised of one appellate court judge, three trial court judges, two attorneys who have practiced at least 10 years and four non-lawyer members. All 10 are appointed by the governor with consent of the state Senate.

As in Wisconsin, the board investigates complaints and makes recommendations for discipline, but unlike Wisconsin the Supreme Court only makes the final determination if the case does not involve a justice. According to Kostouros, the court of appeals would rule in that case so as to avoid possible conflicts of interest that could arise if the Supreme Court were asked to discipline one of its own.

Wisconsin does not have any provision which precludes the Supreme Court from doling out discipline to fellow justices, according to James Alexander, executive director of the Wisconsin Judicial Commission. If one or six justices are recommended for discipline, the remaining justices would review the findings.

“There is no provision for substitute Supreme Court justices in any case, so if one is disqualified, the case is decided by six justices and so on,” said Alexander. “That’s the way things are set up here and I know things are handled differently in other states.”

Michigan handles judicial misconduct in much the same way as Wisconsin, but according to Paul Fisher, executive director of Michigan’s Judicial Tenure Commis-sion, they have yet to encounter a legitimate case against a justice.

“It’s a situation that has never been tested here before, to the best of my knowledge,” said Fischer. “I’ve been here seven years and know the cases pretty well.”

Michigan’s commission investigates claims and determines whether further action is necessary. Ultimately, a recommendation is made for discipline of a justice to the Supreme Court.

Fischer estimated that the commission, made up five lower court judges, two lawyers elected by state bar and two civilians appointed by the governor, received 660 grievances last year and about 60 percent warranted further investigation, but none involved a sitting justice.

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