Sunday, June 6, 2010

Correcting Judgment

This is a fascinating story: a Marion County, Indiana traffic court Judge gave a woman on trial in his court for a license suspension a year in jail!  That's right, the defendant was guilty of a minor misdemeanor and the Judge went nuclear on her.  This is what happened next according to the Indianapolis Star:

"The Indiana Supreme Court could have simply reversed a woman's sentence for driving with a suspended license, a misdemeanor, and the rare one-year jail sentence that resulted. But on Thursday, the justices went further and slammed the behavior of the Marion County traffic court judge, whose handling of the case in February 2009 turned heads. It came soon after Judge Bill Young had moved to the post at traffic court, issuing stiff fines for some and sometimes employing a gruff manner on the bench. In the case that prompted this week's opinion, the justices have ordered a new trial.

Young admits he was agitated that day, and below you can read his response when I spoke with him today. (Short version: He agrees he was wrong.) During the hearing, the last on his morning calendar that day, Christian Hollinsworth had turned down a plea offer from a deputy prosecutor and then, once the trial was under way, changed her mind and asked to take the plea. According to the Supreme Court's opinion, Young said that if she was found guilty, 'she's going to jail for a year.' He continued: 'I don't know if I want to take your plea. I'd rather just go to trial, I think. I don't like being jerked around at all, all right?' The trial continued, and Young found Hollinsworth guilty.

Then, during sentencing a few minutes later, Young noted that she had picked up pending theft and battery charges while her license suspension case was pending. Her attorney pointed out that those charges were merely allegations at that point, prompting Young to respond: 'Sure they are.' He gave her a year in jail, though he later suspended the remainder after she had served 10 days.

After recounting this history, the Supreme Court's unsigned opinion cites Indiana judicial canons requiring judges to perform their duties impartially, competently, and diligently, with an open mind, without bias or prejudice, and with patience and courtesy to litigants. A personal bias or prejudice on the part of the judge -- or situation in which "the judge's impartiality might reasonably be questioned" -- would require the judge to disqualify himself.

The opinion concludes: 'The trial court's behavior in this case did not meet these standards.' A chastened Judge Bill Young told me today: 'I would say that, upon reflection -- and almost as soon as I was saying it -- I knew better. That was inappropriate on my part.' He said there was no excuse, even if he was frustrated that day. 'I should not have made those comments to that woman,' he said, adding that the Supreme Court 'did the exact right thing.'"
Well, at least Judge Young recognizes he was intemperate, but it's appalling that this woman spent ten days in jail under the impression that she was going to spend a year, because a Judge had forgotten to take his metamucil. 

The earliest writings on the responsibilities of a Judge, emphasize repeatedly the need to exercise temprament, and mercy.  As I've said repeatedly here at Bad Lawyer, there is no more important place for this to be exhibited than in your municipal courts where most citizens see the "rule of law."  This  is why opinions like that of the Justices of the Ohio Supreme Court discarding the requirement of evidentiary proof of speed, for speeding ticket convictions as I discussed earlier this week are so pernicious.  We breed cynicism and disrespect over the "little injustices."  Although I don't think sitting in jail for ten days over a driver's license suspension is a "little" injustice. 

Good for Judge Young, though, he has a consicience. 

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