620 S.E.2d 69 (S.C. 2005), 26038, In re Beckham

Docket Nº:26038.
Citation:620 S.E.2d 69, 365 S.C. 637
Party Name:365 S.C. 637 In the Matter of Newberry County Magistrate Joseph Griffin BECKHAM, Respondent.
Case Date:September 19, 2005
Court:Supreme Court of South Carolina
 
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620 S.E.2d 69 (S.C. 2005)

365 S.C. 637

In the Matter of Newberry County Magistrate Joseph Griffin BECKHAM, Respondent.

No. 26038.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

Sept. 19, 2005

Submitted July 6, 2005

In the Matter of Newberry County Magistrate Joseph Griffin Beckham, Respondent.

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Henry B. Richardson, Jr., Disciplinary Counsel, of Columbia, for Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

W. Chadwick Jenkins, of Newberry, for respondent.

PER CURIAM

In this judicial disciplinary matter, respondent and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) have entered into an Agreement for Discipline by Consent pursuant to Rule 21, RJDE, Rule 502, SCACR. In the Agreement, respondent admits misconduct and consents to the imposition of an admonition[365 S.C. 640], public reprimand, or suspension not to exceed ninety (90) days pursuant to Rule 7(b), RJDE, Rule 502, SCACR. We accept the Agreement and suspend respondent for sixty (60) days. The facts as set forth in the Agreement are as follows.

FACTS

I.

A defendant was charged with criminal domestic violence (CDV). When the matter came to trial before respondent neither the victim nor the arresting officer were present to offer any testimony against the defendant. The defendant was present but did not plead guilty. Notwithstanding the foregoing, respondent found the defendant guilty of CDV. The only information in support of this finding was the law enforcement incident report.

Thereafter, the defendant's attorney contacted respondent over the telephone. During the ex parte conversation, the attorney convinced respondent that he had erroneously found the defendant guilty.

During the telephone conversation, respondent told the attorney that if he filed a motion to reopen the case, he would grant the motion. It appears respondent agreed to grant the motion to reopen without notice or opportunity to be heard being afforded the State or the victim and, for purposes of this Agreement, respondent does not deny these facts. However, respondent represents it is possible he checked with law enforcement to see if the State objected to the reopening or

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that the attorney told respondent he had talked with law enforcement representatives and they had no objection. The matter was reopened and the defendant was found not guilty.

A representative of the Sheriff's Department signed the Ishmell1 order after respondent told the attorney he would grant the motion to reopen. The Ishmell order designates the reason for its issuance as "signed off in error." Respondent now recognizes this was not an accurate statement since he had not found the defendant guilty as the result of clerical error, but as the result of judicial error[365 S.C. 641].

After discussing this matter with ODC and his own attorney, respondent now recognizes he was in error in finding the defendant guilty under the circumstances and, in fact, his actions constituted judicial misconduct, albeit unintentional. Respondent now recognizes and acknowledges that his ex parte conversation with the defendant's attorney and, additionally, his ruling on a motion without giving the State an opportunity to be heard constituted misconduct. In mitigation, respondent represents he agreed to reopen the matter as he did because it was so very clear to him that he had committed reversible error in his handling of the matter.

Respondent acknowledges that the inaccurate statement on the Ishmell order constitutes judicial misconduct. After discussing this matter with ODC, respondent is now aware that Ishmell orders are authorized only under limited circumstances to correct clerical errors and the use of such orders under the circumstances here constituted judicial misconduct.

For quite some time and long prior to respondent's magisterial appointment, it was standard practice in the Newberry County Magistrate's Court for a representative of the Sheriff's Department to appear at bench trials in criminal cases in lieu of the appearance of the arresting officer and/or complaining witness(es). In addition, unless the defendant was represented by counsel, it was standard practice to have the Sheriff's Department representative (who had no first hand knowledge of the case) to testify for the State by reading the information from the incident report. If the defendant was represented by an attorney, the case would be continued until the arresting officer and/or the complaining witness(es) could be present.2

Respondent represents he followed the procedure described above as it was used by his predecessors and by current Newberry County magistrates. Respondent correctly asserts that hearsay evidence is not inadmissible per se, but is admissible unless an objection is made in a timely fashion. ODC does not dispute this contention[365 S.C. 642].

After discussing the Newberry County Magistrate Court's procedure and related legal principles with ODC and his own attorney, respondent now recognizes that the Magistrate's Court was, in effect, depriving pro se defendants of the constitutionally guaranteed right to confront their accusers. This practice constituted judicial misconduct, albeit unintentional. Respondent warrants that, in the future, he will cease allowing defendants to plead guilty or be convicted solely on the basis of incident reports.

ODC does not contend that it is judicial misconduct for a judge to allow hearsay testimony into a proceeding where there is no objection, even in cases where a defendant is pro se, but, instead, contends that fundamental principles of jurisprudence require some admissible evidence of the commission of a crime as a prerequisite to proceeding with a criminal case. In addition, ODC contends Magistrate's Court should not accommodate...

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