One was accused of going after a kid with a baseball bat. Another solicited young prostitutes. One directed business to a mediator in exchange for a discount on his own divorce.
All were judges punished by the Minnesota Supreme Court based on recommendations from the state Board on Judicial Standards. The board, which on average takes action against one judge a year, lately appears to be ahead of that pace.
Two Hennepin County District judges recently rejected proposed punishments and took their cases to hearings before three-member fact-finding panels.
Judges Patricia Kerr Karasov and Jack Nordby are expected to wait weeks before learning of their punishments, if any. Karasov is accused of living outside her district and lying to cover it up. Nordby is accused of making intemperate remarks during a hearing. Both have denied the allegations.
When prosecuting lawyer Doug Kelley made opening comments in the Karasov hearing, he said judges need to be held to a higher standard than most people, including lawyers. He said Karasov deserved discipline in part for her defiance during the investigation.
Those who wear the black robes must adhere to a code requiring them to "maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives." They must "aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity, and competence."
The Supreme Court's former Chief Judge Eric Magnuson said in an interview, "You have to be a better citizen. If you want the title of judge, you have to shoulder the responsibility."
Canons and rules
The conduct code includes four canons that say judges shall:
• Uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
• Perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently.
• Conduct personal and extra-judicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office.
• Not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary.
Each canon has a list of rules, sometimes dozens. Rule 2.8 reads: "A judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, court staff, court officials, and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity, and shall require similar conduct." Rule 3.6 reads: "A judge shall not knowingly hold membership in an organization that practices unlawful discrimination."
David Paull, executive secretary of the board, said most of the state's 500 judges and judicial officers have no trouble following the rules. But the board gets about 1,600 letters and calls a year alleging misconduct. Of those, about 120 are formally investigated, and action is proposed in about 20 cases. Action can range from private censure to public censure, suspension or removal.
"The increased number of public hearings lately does not indicate that more judges are behaving badly," Paull said. Typically, the board recommends three judicial reprimands each year. In 2008, there were five, but numbers dropped back to normal the following two years. In 2010, there were no public hearings, Paull noted.
Politicking a no-no
Magnuson, now a partner at Briggs and Morgan in Minneapolis, said, "When you're a judge, you're always a judge. When you're a lawyer, you're a lawyer in court, but to a greater degree in other areas of your life, you're a citizen."
Magnuson said that as a judge he couldn't raise money for civic organizations and, of course, couldn't attend political functions. When former Gov. Tim Pawlenty ran for the Legislature and for governor the first time, his wife, Mary Pawlenty, was never by his side because she was a Dakota County judge.
Magnuson said that even writing a letter of recommendation for a friend or clerk can be tricky. "Judges have to be careful about how they exert authority," he said.
Hennepin County District Judge Gary Larson said he never uses his judicial letterhead for correspondence. He added that when he's off the bench, "I never introduce myself as a judge because it changes the whole tenor of the relationship."
Retired Ramsey County District Chief Judge Larry Cohen said that while a judge he was mindful of his mother's instructions when he was a little boy to "conduct yourself as if everything you do is being watched, and behave yourself."
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747