The ideal judge is essentially a gavel-breathing dragon armored with the scales of justice -– a brilliant beast whose every courtroom ruling exudes fairness and objectivity. Too bad actual judges err just like the rest of us. Sometimes they’re downright draconian. Other times they’re ludicrously incompetent. Either way, they can turn court into a smorgasbord of suck and then sentence everyone else to eat it. So grab a knife and fork and prepare to dig in. Court’s now in session.
The cross examiner
Anyone familiar with the U.S. Constitution knows that it prohibits state-imposed religion but is pro free speech. You could (and quite possibly should) name your kid Jesus Djibouti-Shaker and no judge can legally stop you. But some of them might try. Enter Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew.
In 2013 the Tennessee judge presided over a pretty straightforward case that became a remedial civics lesson. According to USA Today, the parents of a baby named Messiah clashed over what the child’s last name should be and took the issue to court. Ballew, however, had a theological bone to pick. Apparently confusing the bench with a pulpit, the magistrate admonished: “The word ‘Messiah’ is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” She further preached that the name Messiah would sow discontent among surrounding Christians.
Ballew’s sermonizing ended with her changing the child’s first name from Messiah to Martin (the mother’s surname) and giving him the last name McCullough, after his father. Ballew then commanded the parents to reflect that change on their baby’s birth certificate. But Messiah’s mother knew the judge’s ruling was hot garbage and challenged it in court. A sane Tennessee judge overturned Ballew’s decision on constitutional grounds, allowing the parents to call their child Messiah.
The story didn’t end there, though. Ballew had unquestionably committed a judicial sin. And as CBS revealed, that misstep cost Ballew her job.
Brawl and chain
In February 2015, Texas resident Josten Bundy punched his way into a pickle. ABC affiliate KLTV explained that Bundy decided to dispense some bareknuckle retribution when his girlfriend’s ex started talking smack about her. He clocked the man twice across the jaw, resulting in criminal charges.
Bundy’s fate rested in the hands of Judge Randall Rogers, who recommended 15 days behind bars. Things could have ended there, but the judge had other plans. After a bit of questioning, Rogers promised Bundy probation if he agreed to marry girlfriend Elizabeth Jaynes in 30 days. Additionally, he’d have to write Bible passages 25 times a day and attend counseling. Hilariously, Bundy opted for incarceration so long as he could explain everything to his employer.
Rogers shot him down. The only options were: (A) go to jail and miss work without permission or (B) get hitched and find Jesus. Fearing that two weeks of jail would end in joblessness, Bundy chose the prison of a marriage he didn’t want. Jaynes agreed but paid an emotional price. Her father objected to a forced wedding on principle and refused to attend. Her sisters, meanwhile, simply couldn’t come. Understandably, the bride felt cheated.
Then there was the issue of having to write Bible passages, which sounds a tad unconstitutional. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) took issue with the ruling and complained to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC). A lawyer from the FFRF later informed KLTV that the SCJC had formally chastised Rogers for misconduct.
A chip on Justice's shoulder
West Virginia Judge Willian “Chip” Watkins had a temper best described as Hindenburgian. It was oversized, highly combustible, and would ultimately send Watkins’ credibility crashing down in flames.
The ornery jurist screamed his way to infamy in 2012 when a video emerged of him verbally mauling a litigant during divorce proceedings. As shown in the clip above and summarized by the West Virginia Record, Watkins believed that one of the divorcees, Reverend Arthur Hage, was responsible for an article about the judge’s failure to pay homeowner’s association fees. In response, he snapped.
Watkins started by warning Hage that if he spoke “one word out of turn,” he’d be jail-bound. He soon unleashed a torrent of banshee fury, screaming hysterically and blaming the reverend for unspecified acts of vandalism against his home. At one point he even ominously vowed to hold Hage responsible for any future trespasses against his family, again threatening imprisonment. Watkins later promised to recuse himself, but not before ordering Hage to pay $1,500 toward the sale of his marital home and his ex-wife’s expenses.
Hage filed a formal complaint, and a subsequent investigation revealed that Watkins had unfurled his fury on other occasions as well. The ABA Journal reported that when addressing a woman who sought legal protection from an abusive husband, Watkins chastised her for “shooting off [her] fat mouth about what happened” before launching into insults. Such explosive behavior, coupled with a number of administrative shortcomings earned the combative judge a four-year suspension.
It's right to remain silent
Every legal drama thrives on memorable exchanges. Witness badgering, unexpected confessions, and clever questioning all fall firmly within the wheelhouse of juicy courtroom action. What you don’t see as often is judicial foot-in-mouth disease. The notion of a judge talking like an internet troll with Tourette’s seems too unrealistic. But such oral disasters do exist. One of them is Timothy Dooley.
A Superior Court judge in Nome, Alaska, Dooley had inferior communication skills and became known for making outrageous statements. A formal complaint by Alaska’s Commission on Judicial Conduct highlights instances of questionable, offensive, and downright dumb language. For instance, during a 2013 sexual assault case involving a 14-year-old victim, Dooley opined, “This was not someone who was, and I hate to use the phrase, ‘asking for it’. There are girls out there that seem to be temptresses. And this does not seem to be anything like that.”
In 2014 he made equally disturbing remarks during a domestic abuse trial. When a witness spoke too quietly, Dooley said, “I’m sorry, folks, but I can’t slap her around to make her talk louder.” In other cases the judge would needlessly mention his “Medieval Christianity” or child marriage in Afghanistan. Perhaps most troubling was when Dooley virtually promised not to jail a defendant if he entered a plea of no contest.
As described by the Washington Post, Dooley’s regrettable mouth got him briefly suspended so he could take anger management classes and receive training from a mentor.
When judges arbitrate, their decisions should never seem arbitrary. After all, what’s the point of having laws if someone can just chuck them out the window at will? Some people struggle with this idea, however, and sadly it’s not just toddlers and nihilists. Take, for example, New York judge Alan Friess, who indulged in slapdash justice.
According to New York’s Commission on Judicial Conduct, Friess kept a packed courtroom and on at least one occasion included his audience in proceedings. During the 1979 case People v. Louis Santiello, he was tasked with determining whether defendant Louis Santiello had harassed plaintiff John Haisely. Instead, he asked courtroom spectators to decide for him by a show of hands. When the crowd failed to reach a clear consensus, the judge adjourned without issuing a decisive verdict. That stunt would debase a high school mock trial, let alone Friess’ real trial, which became a mockery.
In 1980, Friess made additional waves by releasing a woman charged with murder from jail and then inviting her to spend Thanksgiving with him. As the New York Times explained, the judge had good intentions; the woman had no money and no place to stay. Friess, on the other hand, had no common sense. That became especially evident when he allowed a thief to decide his own jail sentence with a coin flip.
The judge’s reign of error finally ended when he was censured for misconduct, resigned, and then was banned from the bench.
A court date to remember
With 20 years of service under his belt, DMV judge Michael Dorsky had undoubtedly tasted every flavor of vehicular transgression known to man. But apparently none of those cases had prepared him for Catherine Johnson-Murphy. As the New York Daily News described, the NYPD officer entered Dorsky’s courtroom in 2004 after allegedly having an accident in an uninsured car.
It’s unclear whether Dorsky was in love or had simply gotten a secondhand buzz from some drunk driver’s booze-breath. But the already-married judge somehow decided it was a swell idea to ask Johnson-Murphy out to dinner. Not mid-trial, mind you. That would be creepy and stupid. What Dorsky did instead was … also creepy and stupid. Showing the discretion of a runaway jackhammer, he repeatedly called the officer while deciding the outcome of her case.
Court records show that Dorsky discussed his intended verdict with Johnson-Murphy over the phone. He also let her know how smitten he was — not that the two topics were related or anything. Claiming that she owed him nothing, Dorsky cleared Johnson-Murphy of all charges and expunged the case from her record, even though he questioned her innocence. Two weeks later, they had their totally non-transactional date.
Obviously, Dorsky had crossed a legal Rubicon, and the state of New York wasn’t having it. In 2010 the judge was booted from the bench and saw his law license suspended for three years. One can only hope that Dorsky’s betrayed wife issued an even harsher sentence.
Disorder in the court
When considering historical firsts, most people focus on celebrated achievements. But for every great trailblazer there exists a terrible one. For example, Mabel Hubbard was a level-headed lawyer who became Maryland’s first black female judge. Henry Monahan, by contrast, exemplified instability and became the first Maryland judge to face public sanctioning by the Judicial Disabilities Commission.
The Baltimore Sunprovided an overview of Monahan’s infractions. In 1985 the judge forced his way into a house and struck two police officers, allegedly as a result of a stroke. In 1992 he imperiled a courtroom full of people by refusing to evacuate it during a basement fire. According to the bailiff who warned Monahan about the blaze, the judge “chewed him out,” emphasizing that he, not the bailiff, was in charge.
The cherry atop this sad sundae came in the form of a prostitute. In 1994 Monahan purportedly used his chambers to rendezvous with sex worker Darlene Shepard on two separate occasions. Monahan vehemently denied guilt, but the circumstances suggested otherwise. The Washington Post noted that Shepard knew of a secret entryway to Monahan’s chambers and could describe the judge’s junk in detail. Monahan didn’t do himself any favors, initially confirming Shepard’s depiction of his privates before recanting.
The biggest blow came from the courthouse’s Spanish interpreter. According to the Post, she attested to seeing Shepard and Monahan together in a restricted part of the building. Rather than get publicly fired, Monahan pulled a Nixon and resigned.
What do court and boxing have in common? Both involve judges and hitting people. Some of you might dispute the part about hitting, but two key pieces of evidence undermine that dissent. Exhibit A: Mike Tyson. That one’s pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s Exhibit B: Judge John Murphy of Florida, a compelling case that deserves elaboration and probably some boxing gloves.
In 2014 Murphy had a bizarrely heated disagreement with public defender Andrew Weinstock. As captured in the YouTube clip above, Murphy had no interest in Weinstock defending his client. Seemingly incensed by the lawyer’s presence, the judge aggressively tried to dismiss him. “You know if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now,” Murphy said before telling Weinstock to stop “pissing [him] off” and sit down. Weinstock refused to back down, asserting his right as a public defender to, um, defend.
Weinstock’s insistence on lawyering rubbed Murphy the wrong way, so he did what any unreasonable person might do and challenged him to a fight, threatening to “beat [his] ass.” The men marched into the hallway like playground adversaries. Yelling and smacking sounds filtered into the courtroom. Moments later a roughed-up Murphy returned. Weinstock didn’t.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, everyone Weinstock planned to defend that day had to face Murphy alone. The ordeal caused so much embarrassment that Florida’s Supreme Court suspended him before it finished investigating the fight. NBC reported Murphy was fired in late 2015.
In contemptuous court
Custody battles often bring out the bile in people. The dispute between Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni and ex-husband Omer Tsimhoni proved no different. The conflict spanned five years and dozens of hearings, but the parents couldn’t make peace. Their children — ages 9, 10, and 14 — sided firmly with the mother, alleging domestic abuse by their father. Michigan judge Lisa Gorcyca was unswayed.
Documents obtained by the Detroit Free Press revealed that Gorcyca viewed Omer Tsimoni as the gentle-hearted victim of a manipulative ex-spouse. On multiple occasions she urged his kids to bond with him, but they balked each time. In 2015 the judge flat out ordered the children to talk with their father over lunch. And once more they defied her, inciting a vengeance nobody saw coming.
Vexed by the children’s persistent resistance, Gorcyca held them in contempt of court and sentenced all three to juvenile detention. This wasn’t just a scare tactic either. The Free Press reported that she considered detaining them until adulthood and deceptively claimed they’d have no privacy in the bathroom (which is super creepy). The judge then unloaded on the kids’ mother, comparing her to Charles Manson and barring her from parental visits for at least a summer.
As you might have imagined, arresting kids for disliking someone -– even a parent –- doesn’t really jive with justice. The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission convicted Gorcyca of misconduct. Undeterred, the judge brought her case before Michigan’s Supreme Court. A final determination is still pending as of early July 2017.
Anyone who’s ever been stood up on a date or ditched by friends at a stamp convention knows that unreliable people are the worst. You can only count on them for uncertainty and disappointment. Now just imagine if one of those flakes had the power to throw you behind bars or slap you with a fine. Terrifying isn’t it? Well, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, it was a nightmare come true.
Allentown residents could count on Judge Maryesther Merlo to let them down for the better part of a decade. Court records depict Merlo as a woman who regularly played hooky from work, which is ironic since she often handled school truancy cases. Between September 2007 and December 2009 the judge missed 30 percent of her workdays and spent almost half of her absences vacationing. And she was never on time when she did show up, routinely delaying hearings by up to an hour.
Further frustrating matters, Merlo dragged her feet when deciding cases. This had detrimental effects on truancy cases; kids just kept missing school until Merlo delivered a verdict. Moreover, during proceedings she sometimes made uncouth remarks and issued illegal orders. In one case she referred to a high schooler accused of speeding as a dog that “needs to be retrained.” In another she tried to have a woman arrested for invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
According to the Morning Call, the state of Pennsylvania kicked Merlo to the curb in 2011.
Shock and awful
“Rash, foolish, and inappropriate” aren’t words that should ever describe a judge. But Charles County Circuit Court Judge Robert Nalley copped to being all of those things in 2010. As the Washington Post reported, minor mayhem ensued when someone unwittingly parked in Nalley’s spot at the courthouse. The judge could have expressed his dismay by having the car towed or leaving a note. Instead, his inflated ego drove him to deflate the driver’s tires.
As it turns out, the vehicle belonged to a member of the courthouse cleaning staff who, strangely enough, liked having air in her tires. She took Nalley to court, where he pleaded guilty and also confessed to flattening another driver’s tires previously. The judge received a $500 fine and had to write an apology letter. Unfortunately, vehicular violence was only the beginning. Six years later Nalley would get fined again, this time for having a man electrocuted in court.
According to the Washington Post, Delvon King was on trial in 2014 for gun-related charges when he committed the far graver offense of interrupting Nalley during jury selection. Annoyed, the judge made a sheriff’s deputy shock King with a 50,000-volt Stun-Cuff. The defendant collapsed but was largely unscathed.
Since lightly cooking a man out of spite is illegal, the judge had to pay. Nalley was fined $5,000. In addition, he lost his job, was placed on probation, and had to take anger management classes.
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