Mississippi Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Thompson

Decision Date26 January 2012
Docket NumberNo. 2011–JP–00555–SCT.,2011–JP–00555–SCT.
Citation80 So.3d 86
PartiesMISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE v. Rickey W. THOMPSON.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Darlene D. Ballard, John B. Toney, attorneys for appellant.

Jim Waide, Tupelo, attorney for appellee.

EN BANC.

CARLSON, Presiding Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance (Commission) filed a Formal Complaint against Rickey W. Thompson, Justice Court Judge, District Four, Lee County, Mississippi. The multicount complaint charged Judge Thompson with numerous instances of judicial misconduct, causing such alleged conduct to be actionable under Article 6, Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. Ultimately, the Commission and Judge Thompson submitted to this Court a joint motion for approval of a recommendation that Judge Thompson be publicly reprimanded, suspended from office for a period of thirty (30) days without pay, fined the sum of $2,000 and assessed costs in the amount of $100. For the reasons discussed below, we adopt the joint recommendation of the Commission and Judge Thompson.

ANALYSIS
A. Facts and Proceedings Before the Commission and General Discussion of the Charges of Judicial Misconduct

¶ 2. On August 5, 2009, the Commission filed a multicount formal complaint concerning Judge Thompson, a justice court judge in Lee County, alleging willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute. Twenty-six counts were contained in the formal complaint (twenty-five counts actually charged Judge Thompson with judicial misconduct); however, nine counts were redacted in the record filed with us, and eleven counts were consolidated. These eleven consolidated counts charge that Judge Thompson improperly disposed of cases involving separate charges of individuals operating a motor vehicle with no proof of liability insurance. Judge Thompson filed his answer on August 31, 2009, essentially denying the allegations of the complaint. Thereafter, on March 11, 2011, an Agreed Statement of Facts and Proposed Recommendation (Agreement) was submitted and filed by the parties regarding the allegations contained in this complaint. This Agreement addressed the six remaining counts.

¶ 3. This Court makes the “final determination of the appropriate action to be taken in each case” coming before it from the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, “conduct[ing] an independent inquiry of the record” and “accord[ing] careful consideration [of] the findings of fact and recommendations of the Commission, or its committee, which has had the opportunity to observe the demeanor of the witnesses.” Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Boone, 60 So.3d 172, 176 (Miss.2011) (quoting In re Removal of Lloyd W. Anderson, Justice Court Judge, 412 So.2d 743, 746 (Miss.1982)).

Count One

¶ 4. According to the agreed facts:

In the fall of 2006, Florida Rogers owned a horse, a pregnant mare, that disappeared from a pasture where he had placed the horse to graze. At that time, Rogers searched for the horse, but was unsuccessful in locating her. Thereafter, on or about May 18, 2008, Rogers spotted the mare and a colt grazing in a pasture in Lee County, Mississippi.

Rogers went to the Justice Court of Lee County, Mississippi to file a criminal affidavit against the person owning the pasture where the horses were located, but Respondent refused to allow him to do so, advising Rogers that the case was a civil case.

Although Rogers requested that the Lee County Sheriff's Department investigate the matter involving the horses, on or about July 24, 2008, Rogers received a letter from the Sheriff of Lee County, Mississippi advising him that Respondent instructed his office to take no action, as the matter was a civil matter.

Rogers ultimately filed a civil replevin case in the County Court of Lee County, Mississippi and was awarded possession of the mare, the paternity of the colt being at issue.

¶ 5. Under these agreed facts, Judge Thompson involved himself in a case that was not before him. It is true that Judge Thompson may have believed that the facts amounted to a civil rather than a criminal matter, and this Court does not sanction judges for mistakes of law. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Martin, 921 So.2d 1258, 1268 (Miss.2005). In the Martin case, this Court dismissed the proposed sanctions of the Commission where Judge Martin erred in denying bail on two separate occasions. Id. at 1264. In that case, this Court held that:

a judge may ... 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 negligence, ignorance, and incompetence suffice as grounds for behavior to be classified as prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute and thus worthy of sanctions. In re Quick, 553 So.2d 522, 527 (Miss.1989).

Id. at 1264 (citing Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Carr, 786 So.2d 1055, 1058–59 (Miss.2001)).

¶ 6. Contrary to the facts in Martin, Judge Thompson's communication with the sheriff's office crossed the line into involving himself in a criminal investigation at a time when there was no case pending before him concerning the matter.

Count Two

¶ 7. According to the agreed facts:

On or about December 1, 2008, a local attorney, Frank B. Liebling, went to the Lee County Justice Court office to file a complaint against a client who ha [d] stopped payment on a check issued to Liebling for attorney fees.

Liebling did not file the complaint and no action was pending before the court. Instead, Liebling took the proposed complaint and engaged in an ex parte conversation with Respondent. As a result of the meeting, Respondent signed an order nullifying the stop order on the check in question and ordered the bank to cash the check immediately.

The bank officers, being suspicious of the order, contacted the attorneys for the bank and the next day after a conference with the bank attorneys and Liebling, Respondent rescinded the nullification order due to improper process.

¶ 8. Judge Thompson signed an order where there was no case pending and engaged in ex parte discussions in the facts of this count.

Count Three

¶ 9. According to the agreed facts:

On or about June 21, 2008, Holley Kristian Galloway, a minor, was arrested and issued a citation for driving under the influence of alcohol, with a B.A.C. of .09. The case, State of Mississippi v. Holley K. Galloway, Docket 295, Page 430, was randomly assigned to Lee County Justice Court Judge John Sheffield and was set for trial on December 4, 2008. When the officer came into the clerk's office to inspect the file prior to court, it was discovered that Respondent had previously non-adjudicated the minor at the request of Galloway and her father. Respondent non-adjudicated the minor in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated § 63–11–30(3).

¶ 10. The facts provided indicate an ex parte communication among Judge Thompson, Galloway, and Galloway's father. Also, no notice was given to prosecuting authorities, and Judge Thompson unquestionably interfered in a case that was assigned to Judge Sheffield.

¶ 11. The case is distinguishable from this Court's recent opinions in Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. McGee, 71 So.3d 578, 589 (Miss.2011); and Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Little, 72 So.3d 501 (Miss.2011) In those cases, justice court judges admitted to remanding, nonadjudicating, or retiring to the files several DUI charges at the request of a county prosecutor. McGee, 71 So.3d at 582–83; Little, 72 So.3d at 502. This Court dismissed those counts with prejudice, holding that, even if the judges had improperly disposed of the DUI charges, that was only a mistake of law and not sanctionable. McGee, 71 So.3d at 584–85; Little, 72 So.3d at 504. However, unlike the DUI charges in McGee and Little, the agreed facts in Judge Thompson's case describe other sanctionable actions: an ex parte communication with the parties, no notice to prosecuting authorities, and interfering in a case assigned to another judge.

Count Four

¶ 12. According to the agreed facts:

Robert Gary Orozen, Jr. was arrested and charged with the felonies of forgery, possession of a counterfeit check and possession of false identification in October, 2008 in State of Mississippi v. Robert Gary Orozen, Jr., Docket 571, Pages 253–254.

On or about October 28, 2008, Lee County Justice Court Judge Sadie Holland presided at the initial appearance and set bond at $250,000.00. On January 29, 2009, counsel for the defendant filed a Motion to Reduce Bond and for Preliminary Hearing. On April 7, 2009, Judge Holland denied the defendant's request for bond reduction and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for May 27, 2009. That same date, counsel for defendant approached Respondent regarding the request for bond reduction.

The next day, April 8, 2009, Respondent reduced the defendant's bond to $5,000.00 and he was released and transferred to the custody of another law enforcement agency.

¶ 13. The misconduct in this count is apparent. This Court consistently has sanctioned judges for interfering with the orders of another judge. See Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Britton, 936 So.2d 898, 903–04 (Miss.2006); Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Gibson, 883 So.2d 1155, 1158 (Miss.2004), overruled in part on other grounds by Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Boone, 60 So.3d 172 (Miss.2011); In re Bailey, 541...

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