Few authorities in our society have the power of judges, so when they go astray, it may seem that those affected by their transgressions have no recourse apart from voting them out in the next election. But an agency called the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards has the power to investigate complaints and discipline judges. Late last month, the board issued an unusual two reprimands in the same week:
Judge Terrence M. Walters, who's been on the bench for 11 years and presides in Wabasha County, got in trouble for a number of problems, according to the board's order. One of them was failing to supervise his clerk, who in an effort to avoid boredom from having nothing to do, decided to take on some pro bono cases during his work hours. As a result, the state paid the clerk for 257 hours when he was not at work over a nearly six-month period. After the state investigated, the clerk repaid the money, but Walters was faulted for failing to ensure his clerk was working on state business.
Walters also tried a defendant in absentia, a no-no unless the trial is already underway and the defendant fails to show up; gave a defendant more jail time than a plea agreement allowed, without allowing the plea to be withdrawn; and treated a court-appointed consultant with discourtesy. In the disciplinary order, Walters agreed to change his ways and seek out an anger management program or therapist, at his own expense. I tried to reach Walters for comment without success.
Judge Steven J. Cahill, based in Moorhead, Minn., and first appointed to the bench in 2006, received a reprimand for at least 18 violations of the rules governing the conduct of judges, according to the reprimand order. Many of those violations stemmed from what appeared to be a compassionate impulse that the board considered way over the line. Cahill bumped down the charge on one immigrant so he could avoid deportation. A National Guard member got a lighter sentence because the judge knew he would otherwise lose the right to handle firearms. The judge allowed a man to put on a motorcycle race without allowing the county to argue its case that the man did not have the necessary permits.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, the judge stopped by the Clay County jail and granted a 24-hour furlough to a prisoner. The prisoner, who thought it was some kind of mistake, declined the get-out-of-jail free card. Without consulting prosecutors, the judge also gave a three-hour furlough to a teenager who had a court-imposed 9 p.m. curfew after a vehicular homicide charge. The purpose? So the boy could attend the prom.
Cahill called me back Tuesday and said he did not dispute most of what was in the order. "I guess I just tried to do what I thought was the right thing. Perhaps I didn't go about it the right way." He said he is no longer late to court - one of the board's concerns - and has complied with the board's order to find a mentor, a judge based in Fergus Falls. He said he intends to run for re-election in the fall.
The board's executive secretary, Thomas Vasaly, told me the board received 108 complaints about judges last year that it considered within its jurisdiction. I commended him for the plain language and comprehensiveness of the public orders - that's not a given among regulatory agencies (example here). He said that's a conscious effort by the board, so that other judges can learn from them, and the public can read them and make up their own minds.