A review panel has recommended that a Minnesota Tax Court judge be suspended for nine months without pay and demoted for regularly flouting the three-month deadline to issue opinions and falsifying dates to cover his tracks.
"He knew better," the panel for the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards wrote in the sternly worded 35-page findings that called for the censure and suspension of Judge George Perez for a "a persistent pattern of noncompliance" with deadlines for deciding cases.
The panel of a judge, lawyer and civilian made the recommendation following a complaint that the board filed in November charging Perez with four counts of misconduct, namely that he took eight to 18 months to issue orders. Perez, who was replaced as chief judge after the charges were filed, allegedly manipulated the due dates in several cases to postpone his decisions, the complaint said.
"These are serious matters, deserving of serious sanction," the panel wrote, adding that the punishment is necessary to promote confidence in the judiciary and deter from future similar behavior. The panel consisted of Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge John Rodenberg; William P. Donohue, deputy general counsel with the University of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Hepola.
The formal recommendations include a censure, the suspension, and that Perez be prohibited from serving as chief judge for the duration of his term. The board also recommended that Perez submit monthly status reports on the cases before him, and notify the chief judge when he needs a deadline extension for a case, and explain the reasons why. The recommendations will now come before the Minnesota Supreme Court, which will levy Perez's punishment, if any. Punishment can range from a private reprimand to permanent removal from the bench.
Doug Kelley, an attorney for the Board on Judicial Standards, said the suggested sanction was the most serious he'd seen in a decade. "This is the most severe penalty that has ever been recommended by a panel in any manner that we've tried," he said.
The panel found that the board did not prove two other counts that Perez inappropriately shifted the workload to other judges, and that he failed to cooperate with an investigation.
Perez denied the board's claims, but admitted from time to time he passed a deadline due to illness or required an extension. He said he did not refuse cases, but rather asked to receive fewer in the rotation to balance the workload among the three judges.
Perez's attorney, Frederick Finch, said they likely will ask the Supreme Court to reduce the suggested penalty against Perez.
"My initial impression is that the most egregious thing about the panel's recommendation is the excessive suspension," he said. "Their recommendation was disproportionate to what the Supreme Court has approved in other kinds of cases."
Finch said he was heartened on behalf of his client that two counts against Perez were thrown out, evidence that "the board severely overcharged this case." he said, adding that the case has been difficult for Perez both personally and professionally.
In its order, the panel noted that Perez's actions had persisted for some time, and were no secret.
"That Judge Perez was not timely issuing his decisions appears to have been well known over a long period of time by judges and staff of the Tax Court, as well as practitioners before the Tax Court," the order said. "That the problem persisted over a significant period of time despite this knowledge seems to be attributable to a lack of oversight, both organizationally and technologically."
Perez is a former chief judge and 15-year veteran of the three-judge court, which is designed for taxpayers to appeal state and local taxes. At the time the complaint was filed, he was the only judge serving on the Tax Court following the departures of two colleagues. Gov. Mark Dayton has since appointed Judges Bradford Delapena and Joanne Turner to fill the vacancies.