Mississippi Com'n On Jud. Perf. v. Martin, 2005-JP-00504-SCT.

Decision Date15 December 2005
Docket NumberNo. 2005-JP-00504-SCT.,2005-JP-00504-SCT.
Citation921 So.2d 1258
PartiesMISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE v. Judy Case MARTIN.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Luther T. Brantley, III, Darlene D. Ballard, attorneys for petitioner.

W. Brady Kellems, Brookhaven, attorney for respondent.

EN BANC.

RANDOLPH, Justice, for the Court.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

¶ 1. On January 12, 2004, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance ("Commission") filed a formal complaint charging Judy Case Martin ("Judge Martin"), Justice Court Judge, Lincoln County, Mississippi, with judicial misconduct in office. The Commission alleged that her conduct in the Schifano matter violated Article 3, Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution of 18901 and Canons 1, 2A 3B(1), 3B(2), 3B(4), 3B(7), and 3B(8) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi and was therefore actionable pursuant to subsections (b) and (e) of Article 6, Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution.2

¶ 2. On September 9, 2004, three members of the Commission held a hearing on these charges and filed their Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendations on December 15, 2004. On December 28, 2004, Judge Martin filed her Objection to Committee Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendations and her Motion for Additional Time to Supplement Response and Objections.

¶ 3. On February 9, 2005, Judge Martin filed an amendment to her Objections.

¶ 4. On March 10, 2005, the full Commission rendered and adopted its Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Recommendations.

COUNT ONE

¶ 5. The first charge of judicial misconduct against Judge Martin involved Sam Schifano (Schifano), who was arrested on a series of charges beginning on or about May 28, 2003. The Commission concluded that Judge Martin, using the power of her office as Justice Court Judge, by having Schifano arrested, incarcerated and denied the right of bail on two separate occasions, violated Article 3, Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution 1890, which gives the authority to deny bail only to County and Circuit Judges, and therefore she violated Canons 1, 2A, 3B(1), 3B(2), 3B(4), 3B(7), and 3B(8) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi.

¶ 6. This Court finds the Commission's conclusion of law that "Judge Martin in using the power of her office as Justice Court Judge in having Mr. Schifano arrested, incarcerated and to deny him bond on two separate occasions violated Article 3, Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution" is overly broad. Article 3, Section 29 addresses solely the issue of bail, but does not address wrongful arrest or unjust incarceration. Therefore, this Court will focus on whether Judge Martin's denial of bail to Schifano contrary to Article 3, Section 29, violated the aforementioned canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi.

¶ 7. The Commission recommended that Judge Martin be publicly reprimanded, suspended from office without pay for a period of thirty days, and assessed the costs of this proceeding in the amount of $1,925.08 for her willful misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, which brings the judicial office into disrepute.

COUNT TWO

¶ 8. The Commission concluded that there was not clear and convincing evidence that Judge Martin had committed judicial misconduct in the matter of Bridges v. Daly, Docket No. 168, Case No. 115. The Commission recommended this matter be dismissed.

ISSUE FOR DECISION

¶ 9. Judge Martin is only challenging the Commission's recommendation involving the Schifano matter and argues that the evidence is not clear and convincing that she committed judicial misconduct. Judge Martin contends, however, that if the Court were to impose disciplinary sanctions, then according to judicial precedent, a private reprimand would be more appropriate than a public reprimand.

FACTS

¶ 10. The facts are undisputed. On May 28, 2003, as a result of ongoing domestic disputes, Schifano was arrested on misdemeanor charges of stalking and telephone harassment filed by his estranged wife, Paula Ratcliff. Judge Martin released Schifano on $5,000 bond on the same day, an amount based upon conversations between Judge Martin and law enforcement officers and the Justice Court clerks. On June 5, 2003, Schifano was again arrested based upon affidavits filed by Ratcliff and his mother-in-law alleging stalking and trespassing. Judge Martin initially denied bail on June 5, 2003, and then subsequently set a $5,000 bail on June 10, 2003. Schifano was incarcerated until he was bonded out on June 10, 2003. On July 3, 2003, Schifano was again arrested for telephone harassment based upon his estranged wife's affidavit. He was immediately released on $2,500 bail. On August 13, 2003, Judge Martin held a hearing on all of the above charges. Schifano was found not guilty on all charges, as all of the witnesses either failed to appear or declined to testify at court.

¶ 11. On August 26, 2003, Schifano was again arrested and incarcerated, charged with telephone harassment on a warrant filed by his estranged wife. Judge Martin initially denied bail to Schifano. Subsequently on September 2, 2003, bail of $1,000 was set, and Schifano was released on the same day. Schifano requested that Judge Martin recuse herself from the case, to which she consented, and thus another judge was assigned the case. Schifano was found guilty of telephone harassment and fined.

¶ 12. Judge Martin testified that she was unfamiliar with Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, as amended, as to the setting of bail and if and when said bail could be denied. She further testified that she did not try to initiate any contempt proceedings against Schifano for violating any conditions of his bond or conditions of release, nor did she set a bond revocation hearing.

¶ 13. The Commission concluded that Judge Martin in using the power of her office as Justice Court Judge in having Schifano arrested, incarcerated, and denying bail to Schifano on two separate and distinct occasions violated Article 3, Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, as amended, and therefore violated of Canons 1, 2A, 3B(1), 3B(2), 3B(4), 3B(7), and 3B(8) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi. The Commission found that this conduct constituted willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, which brings the judicial office into disrepute pursuant to subsections (b) and (e) of Article 6, Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 14. This Court reviews judicial misconduct proceedings de novo. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Perdue, 853 So.2d 85, 88 (Miss 2003) (citing Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Vess, 692 So.2d 80, 83 (Miss.1997)). Great deference is given to the Commission's findings when those findings are based on clear and convincing evidence. Id. (citing Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Lewis, 801 So.2d 704, 707 (Miss.2001); Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Bishop, 761 So.2d 195, 198 (Miss.2000)). However, this Court is not bound by the Commission's findings and must use independent judgment in assessing [the] misconduct [of judges]. Id. (citing In re Collins, 524 So.2d 553, 556 (Miss.1988)). It is within the exclusive province of the Supreme Court to impose sanctions for judicial misconduct. Id. (citing Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Fletcher, 686 So.2d 1075, 1078 (Miss.1996); In re Garner, 466 So.2d 884, 885 (Miss.1985)).

ANALYSIS

¶ 15. We believe our judicial system is more just and fair than any legal system which presently exists, or for that matter, which has ever existed in the history of civilization preceding our experiment in democracy. Yet at the same time, the system is not perfect. Judges are human, and as such, do on occasion err. Ultimately, it is this Court's constitutional duty to separate honest errors of a judge from willful misconduct, wrongful use of power, corruption, dishonesty, or acts of moral turpitude which negatively reflect upon the judicial branch of government.

¶ 16. We agree with the Commission that Judge Martin's rulings were contrary to Article 3, Section 29 of the Mississippi Constitution. We find that Judge Martin erred in denying bail to Schifano, but this error does not necessarily equate to sanctionable conduct as enunciated by this Court in Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Carr, 786 So.2d 1055(Miss.2001). In Carr, this Court established the grounds for sanctionable conduct as follows:

Willful misconduct in office is the improper or wrongful use of power of his office by a judge acting intentionally or with gross unconcern for conduct and generally in bad faith. It involves more than an error of judgment or a mere lack of diligence. Necessarily, the term would encompass conduct involving moral turpitude, dishonesty, or corruption, and also any knowing misuse of office whatever the motive. However, these elements are not necessary to finding bad faith. A specific intent to use the powers of the judicial office to accomplish a purpose which the judge knew or should have known was beyond the legitimate exercise of authority constitutes bad faith.... Willful misconduct in office is conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute. However, a judge may also, through negligence or ignorance not amounting to bad faith, behave in a manner prejudicial to the administration of justice so as to bring the judicial office into disrepute. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Russell, 691 So.2d 929, 937 (Miss.1997). This Court can generally recognize examples of willful misconduct when they are presented for review. In re Anderson, 412 So.2d 743, 752 (Miss. 1982) (Hawkins, J. specially concurring). The misconduct complained of need not be intentional or notorious; rather...

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