Anoka County District Judge Alan Pendleton got a stern reception from Minnesota Supreme Court justices Tuesday at a hearing over charges that he violated judicial residency rules and tried to conceal it.
Pendleton spent eight months at his wife's house in Minnetonka in 2014 after selling his Anoka condominium — an apparent violation of the state Constitution, which requires that judges live in their judicial districts.
A three-judge panel appointed by the court has recommended that Pendleton be suspended without pay for between six and 16 months, which would be a rare penalty in Minnesota. The court has temporarily suspended him with pay until they make their final disciplinary decision.
Some of the same justices at Tuesday's hearing gave Hennepin County Judge Patricia Karasov a six-month suspension without pay in 2011 for living full-time in a Chisago County lake home, then not cooperating with an investigation. At the time, the justices wrote that they never expected to deal with such misconduct again.
"This is a really big deal," Chief Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea said Tuesday. "How do we ensure judges will follow the Constitution?"
Pendleton, 60, was appointed to the 10th Judicial District in 1999. He recently won an outstanding judge award from the state for his commitment to improving the judicial system through a popular website and his innovative use of technology to enhance judicial efficiency.
The panel's report said it appeared Pendleton "suspended" his search for a new residence and "abandoned" it for nearly five months while he lived with his wife.
Doug Kelley, Pendleton's attorney, said the judge had always intended to find a new residence in Anoka County, but was dealing with financial hardships and a personal emergency with his son. He said the delay in finding a new residence was temporary and that Pendelton planned to move back when the teen was settled in a new school.
Kelley said the judicial standards board lacked a key piece of evidence: A note from the manager of a storage facility the judge used to store furniture. It said "Client will call soon to move back to Anoka."
Kelley also faulted the panel for asking inappropriate questions about the judge's relationship with his wife and for disclosing that they had his bankruptcy petition the evening before his hearing. He also took issue that the judicial board didn't notify Pendleton before his hearing that they would question him about his re-election form.
"This was a violation of the judge's due process rights," he said. "I wouldn't think the justices would want to encourage this."
Justice G. Barry Anderson said he was troubled by the judicial board's lateness in alerting Pendleton about the re-election filing. He asked William Egan, who represented the judicial standards board, if the judge got sandbagged.
Egan said the filing was admitted as evidence at the hearing. He also questioned why Pendleton didn't simply call the board to ask how he should handle his potential residency issues.
Much of Tuesday's hearing focused on how quickly Pendleton should have searched for a new residence after he left his condo in Anoka.
"Is 60 days OK, but 90 days is too long?" asked Gildea. "Maybe we need bookends on it."
The heart of the case, she said, was that Pendleton lied to voters when he listed a false residence on his re-election form. He might not have been able to run unopposed if the state Bar Association found out he lied, she said.
"He may not have even been allowed on the ballot," said Justice Wilhelmina M. Wright.
By admitting he put a false address on his re-election filing, Pendleton met the factors needed to prove perjury, said Justice David Lillehaug.
Kelley said the judge takes full responsibility for filing a false re-election form and recognizes it's a serious violation.
"He expects to be sanctioned," Kelley said.
But any recommendation from the judicial standards board is tainted because "they act as the investigator, prosecutor and almost the judge," he said.
The panel's report said Pendleton denied any "intent to deceive the electorate," but the panel found that denial "incredible" when viewed in the context of the whole record, the report said.
"But the voters were lied to," Gildea said.
The Supreme Court doesn't have a deadline for its decision, but it typically is handed down within four months of a hearing.