In the early 1970s while working for the state courts, I was at the forefront in the campaign to adopt judicial reform in our state. Among the significant improvements in the reform legislation proposed at that time by the late Chief Justice Howell Heflin and others was the creation of a process to discipline state judges.
The process would consist of two separate bodies. One, the Judicial Inquiry Commission ( JIC), acting like a grand jury, would be charged with bringing and investigating complaints against state judges. The other, called The Court of the Judiciary, would hear the complaints. The membership of the commission and the court would consist of judges, lawyers, and non-lawyers.
That process has worked pretty well for more than four decades but has played itself out in recent months in what I consider an unsightly manner that has provoked questions about the objectivity of some members and staff of the Inquiry Commission. I won’t go into detail because neither the activities of the commission nor the names of its members can be found on any court system website or any other document readily accessible to the public.
What follows is an almost unbelievable story of abuse by this commission which is supposed to conduct legitimate investigations into unethical and illegal activities by state judges.
Patricia D. Warner, a circuit judge in Montgomery, stepped down from her position in June of 2011. Originally, she had announced her retirement as of July 15th, but suddenly left the court in June, offering no explanation to anyone. It was thought at the time that she was leaving to join her husband, who had taken a job in North Dakota.
At this point I must issue a disclaimer that The Montgomery Independent has twice endorsed Warner for the judicial position she held.
Now, on with this unbelievable story:
The reason, we made the assumption at the time, that this was not unusual, was that Judge Warner had stepped down to join her husband in North Dakota and because she had enough time accumulated as a state employee and a judge to retire from the state. I have since been told that she had to believe a lynching was in progress because someone connected to the secretive JIC investigation was thought to be kin to one of Warner’s previous opponents.
But Warner’s resignation didn’t deter the JIC members, who we now know were either misinformed by their own advisors or had not thoroughly read the record of the case against Warner. Insiders in the state judicial process have revealed to me that the JIC member who pressed the case to get rid of Warner was its chairman, Norman E. Waldrop Jr., a Mobile lawyer.
Waldrop signed the first complaint which contained 74 charges against Warner, charges so bogus that 73 were later dismissed. It was interesting to me that the revised complaint, minus the 73 obviously trumped-up charges was not signed by Waldrop, but by longtime JIC member Circuit Judge Ben McLaughlin of Ozark, an old friend and one of Alabama’s finest judges.
Under the terms of the final agreement last week, the Court of Judiciary found that Warner created “the appearance of impropriety” in one child custody case, in violation of Canon 2 of the state Canons of Judicial Ethics.
Warner stated after the final agreement that the charges were all fabricated and she was pleased the nightmare is over.
Her lawyer, Chuck Dauphin, charged that the Judicial Inquiry Commission “wanted to save face, so we tossed them a bone to end this ridiculous mess.”
The Judicial Inquiry Commission, which brought the charges against Warner, said in a statement that Warner’s abrupt retirement, four days before the initial complaint was filed, meant that she “voluntarily imposed the ultimate sanction on herself: removal from judicial office.” After discussing this with several lawyers I believe that is a bogus assumption and not enforceable under the law, mainly because she was coerced.
“There was no basis for the actions taken by the Judicial Inquiry Commission,” Dauphine said. “In every case, the Commission had in its possession overwhelming evidence that Judge Warner had not violated the law or judicial ethics. This was simply a vicious witch hunt.”
Both Warner and the Judicial Inquiry Commission have agreed not to appeal the ruling. So this whole unnecessary mess is over, not just for Judge Warner, but for the state’s taxpayers as well.
Bob Martin is editor and publisher of The Montgomery Independent. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.