Courts & the Law, News

Senate lawmakers introduce bill clarifying who can discipline sitting judges after N.C. Supreme Court ruling

Senate lawmakers introduced a bill Tuesday clarifying that the Judicial Standards Commission has the sole power to discipline judges and justices of the court — not the North Carolina State Bar.

Senate Bill 250 states that sitting judges cannot be disciplined by the State Bar for conduct occurring while in office.

“The Council shall have the jurisdiction, authority, and procedure for discipline of any conduct that occurred prior to the judge’s election or appointment to office.”

The bill appears to stem from a recent North Carolina Supreme Court ruling reversing the State Bar’s disciplinary proceedings involving a Dare County superior court judge. The court ruled that only it or the Judicial Standards Commission may impose discipline for sitting judges.

Jerry Tillett was reprimanded by the Judicial Standards Commission in 2013 for violating principles of personal conduct after he launched his own investigation into the Kill Devil Hills Police Department, the town’s district attorney and other officials.

His feud with officials occurred after his son was detained by police in 2010. You can read more about it here.

Two years after Tillett was reprimanded, the State Bar initiated its own disciplinary proceedings, which could have ultimately resulted in the suspension of the judge’s license to practice law (which would have forced him to leave the bench).

Tillett asked the Supreme Court to step in. The Criminal Law Blog, from the UNC School of Government, sums up the high court’s response well with commentary about what the ruling means.

It held that “while a judge remains in office, only this Court or the [Judicial Standards Commission] may impose discipline for his or her conduct as a judge.” The lead opinion notes that the Judicial Standards Commission was created in the early 1970s based on the understanding that the State Bar’s disciplinary procedures did not apply to judges. There was, therefore, a lack of an appropriate formals means to discipline judges short of removal, and the Judicial Standards Commission was “intended to fill that void” and to be the exclusive means of disciplining judges while in office for conduct that occurs during their judicial service.

Chief Justice [Mark] Martin’s concurring opinion supports “the wisdom of the overall scheme that the General Assembly has prescribed.” The Chief Justice argues that precluding the State Bar from disciplining sitting judges “preserves judicial independence” and avoids putting judges at the mercy of the lawyers who appear before them.

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