Report Card Blasts Federal Systems for Failing to Hold Judges Accountable
Washington, DC— Today, the nation's first comprehensive study of the systems that hold state and federal judges accountable issued the 13 federal circuits, which now all operate under the same set of rules, a combined D+ overall. To shine a light on the typically secretive and toothless systems that often fail to remove abusive and incompetent judges from the bench, legal consumer watchdog group HALT, Inc. released its 2008 Judicial Accountability Report Card, analyzing programs in all 50 states, D.C. and the federal circuits.
"While most judges serve capably from the bench, our systems for judicial accountability unfortunately allow others to regularly abuse their positions of power," stated HALT Senior Counsel Suzanne M. Blonder. "Weak conduct codes permit federal judges to rule even when they have a critical conflict of interest in a case. Judicial discipline bodies regularly turn a blind eye to misconduct by making it difficult for citizens to file complaints against judges, concealing data and ultimately refusing to remove or meaningfully sanction even the most incompetent and abusive judges."HALT's Report Card comes on the heels of the release last March of new disciplinary rules for federal judges that the United States Judicial Conference has made mandatory for the first time. While the new regulations brought clarity, they failed to add procedures that would have made the system more rigorous, transparent and impartial. "Surprisingly, our research shows that many states' oversight of state and local judges is superior to the federal circuits' oversight of federal judges," noted Blonder. "Given that federal judges enjoy lifetime appointments, we are troubled by the federal circuits' inattention to federal judges who misuse their positions on the bench."
HALT's study found that the federal circuits do not release information about the misconduct of a member of the federal judiciary unless and until formal sanctions are imposed on the judge. The federal system also received low marks for conditioning a complainant's right to participate in a judicial discipline proceeding on her cooperation in preserving the confidentiality of the proceedings and the subject judge's identity.
"In an era that embraces principles of sunshine and transparency, it's shameful that the system for monitoring our most powerful officials is designed to shut out the public and punish those citizens who dare to disclose that they have called a judge's conduct into question," stated Blonder.
Reflecting the insular nature of judicial oversight programs across the country, HALT also noted that the federal circuits only allow judges to make decisions about other judges' conduct. Most commissions that address the abuses of state judges allow some lay person participation in the decision-making process, however.
"At a time when the American public has lost faith in the impartiality and fairness of the nation's judiciary, effective oversight of state and federal judges is vital," stated Blonder. "It's now incumbent on circuit judges to transform a mechanism marred by indifference and secrecy into a system dedicated to upholding the integrity of our nation's judiciary." See,HALT.