Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Clinkscales

Decision Date09 June 2016
Docket NumberNo. 2015–JP–01281–SCT.,2015–JP–01281–SCT.
Citation192 So.3d 997
Parties MISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE v. Latisha Nicole CLINKSCALES.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Darlene D. Ballard, Rachel Michel, Meagan C. Brittain, attorneys for appellant.

Bennie L. Richard, Greenville, attorney for appellee.

EN BANC.

WALLER, Chief Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. On August 26, 2015, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance found that former Municipal Court Judge Latisha Nicole Clinkscales had engaged in judicial misconduct constituting willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute, in violation of Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution. The Commission has entered a recommendation that Clinkscales be publicly reprimanded and assessed costs of the proceeding, and the Commission and Clinkscales have filed a joint motion requesting this Court to approve the Commission's recommendation. We find that Clinkscales engaged in judicial misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, and we impose a public reprimand and assess Clinkscales the costs of the proceeding.

FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. Latisha Nicole Clinkscales served as Municipal Court Judge for the City of Columbus from 2010 until her resignation on June 23, 2015. While serving as a Municipal Court Judge, she also served as the Columbus Drug Court Judge until her resignation on February 6, 2014, following a meeting with the Administrative Office of Courts concerning irregularities in her operation of the Drug Court program.

¶ 3. On June 9, 2014, the Commission filed a Formal Complaint alleging that Clinkscales had engaged in judicial misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. Clinkscales filed her answer to the complaint on July 17, 2014, in which she either denied the Commission's allegations or claimed she was without sufficient information to ascertain the veracity of the allegations. On August 11, 2015, the parties filed an Agreed Statement of Facts and Proposed Recommendation.

¶ 4. The misconduct to which Clinkscales admitted involves four separate areas: her statements on social media, her operation of the Columbus Drug Court program, her statements in a newspaper interview, and her conduct in the courtroom. Each area of misconduct is detailed below.

Statements on Social Media

¶ 5. Clinkscales admitted that, while serving as Municipal Court Judge for the City of Columbus and Judge for the Columbus Drug Court, she made the following statement on social media: “Cast your vote in the Senate District 16 Special Election. I will be voting for Angela Turner Lairy! ... Let's not lose this seat!” Clinkscales admitted that this statement violated Canon 5(A)(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which generally prohibits judges from publically endorsing political candidates.1

Operation of Columbus Drug Court

¶ 6. While serving as a drug court judge, Clinkscales ordered some individuals to enter the drug court program who had not volunteered. During Clinkscales's tenure as a drug court judge, some drug court participants remained in the program longer than the law allowed. Additionally, Clinkscales ordered her nephew to enter the drug court program, in violation of constitutional and statutory law. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 165 (1890) ( “No judge of any court shall preside on the trial of any cause, where the parties or either of them, shall be connected with him by affinity or consanguinity[.]); accord Miss.Code Ann. § 9–1–11 (Rev.2014).

Statements in Newspaper Interview

¶ 7. On June 23, 2009, prior to her tenure as a judge, Clinkscales was arrested and charged with failing to obey a police officer. In February of 2011, while serving as a judge, she gave an interview to a local newspaper in which she admittedly gave misleading and deceptive responses to questions about her arrest. Specifically, Clinkscales told the interviewer that she had not broken any laws and that she expected to be cleared of any charges. After giving the interview, she entered a plea of no contest to the charge of disobeying a police officer.

Conduct in the Courtroom

¶ 8. Clinkscales admitted to the Commission's allegations that she routinely started court late and acted in a manner which could be construed as discourteous and exhibiting poor courtroom demeanor.

¶ 9. Clinkscales agreed with the Commission that the aforementioned acts of misconduct constituted violations of Canons 1, 2(A), 3(B)(1), 3B(2), 3B(4), 3E(1), 4(A)(1), 4(A)(2), and 5(A)(1)(b) of the Code of Judicial Conduct in Mississippi and Article 6, Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution. In the Agreed Statement of Facts and Proposed Recommendation, counsel for the Commission noted that Clinkscales had no prior disciplinary history with the Commission and that she had fully cooperated with the Commission in this matter. Counsel for the Commission recommended that Clinkscales be publicly reprimanded and assessed the costs of the proceeding in the amount of $563.18. This recommendation was unanimously approved by the full Commission on August 14, 2015, at its regularly scheduled meeting.

¶ 10. On August 26, 2015, the Commission filed its Findings of Fact and Recommendation with this Court. The Commission and Clinkscales also filed a Joint Motion for Approval of Recommendation Filed by the Commission.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 11. This Court has the power, [o]n recommendation of the commission on judicial performance,” to “remove from office, suspend, fine or publicly censure or reprimand any justice or judge of this state for ... willful misconduct in office ... or ... conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute [.] Miss. Const. art. 6, § 177A (1890). In cases involving judicial discipline, it is this Court's duty to “conduct an independent inquiry of the record” and to make a “final determination of the appropriate action to be taken in each case.” In re Removal of Lloyd W. Anderson, Justice Court Judge, 412 So.2d 743, 746 (Miss.1982). In reviewing the record, we “accord careful consideration [to] the findings of fact and recommendations of the Commission, or its committee, which has had the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the witnesses.” Id.

DISCUSSION
I. Whether Clinkscales committed misconduct.

¶ 12. Clinkscales admitted that she violated Canon 5(A)(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct by publicly endorsing a political candidate. See Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 5(A)(1) (“Except as authorized by Sections 5(B)(2), 5(C)(1) and 5(C)(2), a judge or a candidate for election to judicial office shall not ... make speeches for a political organization or publicly endorse a candidate for public office[.]).

¶ 13. Clinkscales also misused her authority as a drug court judge by keeping participants in the program longer than the law allowed and by presiding over a family member's case, which is a violation of Canons 1, 2(A), 3(B)(1), and 3(E)(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. See Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 1 (“A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved.”); Canon 2(A) (“A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”); Canon 3(B)(1) (“A judge shall hear and decide all assigned matters within the judge's jurisdiction except those in which disqualification is required.”); Canon 3(E)(1) (“Judges should disqualify themselves in proceedings in which their impartiality might be questioned by a reasonable person knowing all the circumstances or for other grounds provided in the Code of Judicial Conduct or otherwise as provided by law[.]). Her failure to recuse herself from a case involving a family member also violated constitutional and statutory law. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 165 (1890) ; Miss.Code Ann. § 9–1–11.

¶ 14. In addition, Clinkscales admittedly gave misleading statements regarding a prior arrest during an interview while she was serving as a judge, in violation of Canons 1, 2(A), 4(A)(1), and 4(A)(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. See Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 4(A)(1) (“A judge shall conduct all of the judge's extra-judicial activities so that they do not ... cast reasonable doubt on the judge's capacity to act impartially as a judge[.]); Canon 4(A)(2) (“A judge shall conduct all of the judge's extra-judicial activities so that they do not ... demean the judicial office[.]).

¶ 15. Finally, Clinkscales admitted that she had failed to conduct herself in a courteous manner before litigants in her court, in violation of Canons 1 and 3(B)(4) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 3(B)(4) (“Judges shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom they deal in their official capacities, and shall require similar conduct of lawyers, and of their staffs, court officials, and others subject to their discretion and control.”).

II. Whether the Commission's recommended sanctions are appropriate.

¶ 16. [T]he primary purpose of sanctions is ‘to restore and maintain the dignity and honor of the judicial office and to protect the public against future excesses,’ rather than punishment of the individual.” Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Skinner, 119 So.3d 294, 300 (Miss.2013) (quoting Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Boone, 60 So.3d 172, 185 (Miss.2011) ). This Court traditionally has considered the following six factors in determining the appropriate sanctions for judicial misconduct:

(1) The length and character of the judge's public service;
(2) Whether there is any prior caselaw on point;
(3) The magnitude of the offense and the harm suffered;
(4) Whether the
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