4 Judges Who Lost Their Minds
The news has been filled recently with reports of judges being gifted vehicles, vacations, trips to the Moon, etc., while also having other relationships that could keep them from ruling fairly. If you insist that judges are incorruptible guardians, you might instinctively dismiss all implications of these reports. It may be useful, then, to remind ourselves that judges really are capable of some shady shenanigans. For example...
A Judge Took An Attorney Out Back and Kicked His Ass
Florida judge John Murphy was overseeing a routine day at the courthouse on March 30, 2015. A defendant was up before him on two charges of assault and resisting arrest, and it was now the public defender’s job to state whether they were asking for a speedy trial or whether they were waiving that right. If they asked for a speedy trial, the judge would have to set a date within 175 days (“speedy” is a relative term in the justice system). “We’re not waiving,” said the lawyer, Andrew Weinstock.
“All right, what do you want to do?” asked Murphy. It was an odd question, as the answer was already implied. “What do you want to do?” asked Weinstock, after a pause. “I’m not waiving. If you want to set it for trial, set it for trial. If you want to set it for docket sounding, set it for docket sounding. I’m not waiving in any case.” (Docket sounding is a period of trial scheduling; you don’t need to know what it is to understand this story.)
“You know, if I had a rock, I’d throw it at you right now,” responded Murphy. He was apparently angry at the lawyer for wanting a speedy trial, though he’d later claim he had other grievances with the guy. “Stop pissing me off. Just sit down. I’ll take care of it. I don’t need your help.” This strange declaration led Weinstock to say, “No. You know what? I’m the public defender. I have a right to be here, and I have a right to stand here and represent my client.”
“I said sit down,” said the judge again. Then, after a pause, he added, “If you want to fight, let’s go out back, and I’ll just beat your ass.” Weinstock seemed up for this, replying, “Let’s go outside,” and walking out in the hall. Murphy got up and followed him out. The people in the court were then treated to the sounds of punches, as the judge yelled, “Do you want to fuck with me? Do you?” Murphy walked back into the court room alone. Then everyone clapped.
This is a clearly fictional story, written by someone who wanted to make the judge sound badass but doesn’t really understand how the world works. Except, it’s not, and in fact the whole thing was caught on tape.
Murphy then called up eight cases, speaking to eight defendants who were all officially represented by the public defender’s office, though there was now no lawyer present on their behalf. It all added up to quite unusual conduct from a judge, even by Florida standards, so Murphy was soon kicked off the bench. In his defense, he cited PTSD from his time serving in Afghanistan, but this didn’t sway the disciplinary board or the state Supreme Court. Perhaps he should have sought better legal representation.
A Jail Sentence for a Yawn
Clifton Williams was in court in 2009. He wasn’t there accused of a crime. He was just observing, there supporting his cousin Jason, who was up on a drug charge. At the exact moment when the judge delivered his sentence — two years probation for a guilty plea — Williams yawned. Yawns result from many different reasons besides being bored or sleepy, including excitement or relief.
But according to Judge Daniel Rozak, the yawn was “loud and boisterous.” The state’s attorney’s office agreed, calling it an “attempt to disrupt the proceedings.” Others disputed this characterization, but let’s say it were accurate. What would be the appropriate response from the judge in this case? The good news is Rozak did not now rescind his lenient sentence and send the defendant to jail out of spite. The bad news is he did send Williams to jail, for six months on a contempt charge.
Yes, judges have that power. You might already be familiar with judges sending people to jail for contempt thanks to law shows on TV, where a lawyer gets sentenced after getting up on a soapbox or groping the court reporter, and we then comedically cut to their getting released the next day. These sentences can last a fair bit longer than that. For anything longer than six months, a jury needs to convict the defendant, but anywhere up to that six-month maximum, the judge can do it all on their own, acting as judge and jury.
Three weeks into the sentence, the judge gave Williams a chance at release. The yawner just needed to appear in court in shackles and express remorse for his actions. To further put Williams in his place, the judge delivered what sources call a “short lecture,” the contents of which newspapers didn’t bother transcribing, which is probably a mercy for us all.
$26,000 to Cover Up a Painting
Utah has a program through which every government building open to the public devotes 1 percent of its budget to art. Committees meet to decide which pieces to showcase, and the state’s failure to broadcast these meetings as a reality TV show really represents a missed opportunity. Maybe the committee will approve a giant pair of hands, or a 28-foot bookcase whose contents look like a face from a far distance. In 1998, a committee gave the thumbs up to a painting called “Conflict and Resolution” for the new Supreme Court building:
In case it’s not immediately clear what you’re looking at there, the painting shows what it looks like after a thunderstorm hits a canyon, such as one of the canyons in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park (the painting was later renamed “Capitol Reef”). This is a metaphor for justice, and if you’re tired of seeing the same old blindfolded lady holding scales every single time, sure, bring on the new symbol of justice, the abstract thunder cloud arch.
Judge Richard Howe of the Utah Supreme Court was not a fan of the piece. The painting’s 19 feet tall and 15 feet wide, so it tends to attract attention. It wasn’t “appropriate to the proceedings of the court,” he argued. Clearly, not everyone felt this way — the committee who approved it included two of his fellow high court judges — but Howe felt strongly enough that he ordered the installation of a special curtain to cover the painting whenever court was in session. Four months after the curtain went up, he retired, rendering his opinion irrelevant.
Many people probably didn’t care very much about this bickering over décor. Then they learned the curtain somehow cost $26,000, and they were baffled. Why, that was the average annual salary in Utah the year the painting was approved. How does a curtain cost that much? What money laundering scheme was this?
We don’t know for sure the explanation behind that price tag. But let’s speculate that the money was the remainder of that year’s art budget. Picture a contractor asking how much the city was willing to put into the project, and picture Howe replying $26,000. “Seriously?” says the contractor.
“Yeah, sure,” says Howe. “May as well spend it. If not, they’ll just throw it away on more art.”
America’s First Impeachment
John Pickering was the President of New Hampshire in 1790. New Hampshire had its own president back then, because the world was crazy (and because they hadn’t renamed that office to “the governorship” yet). He got the job because the last guy resigned. He soon lost the next election to someone who’d just left D.C., after an incident involving his men killing all their horses and leaving the skulls behind.
Pickering’s next position was as a district judge, taking the seat left vacant by the very guy who succeeded him as president. It sounds like he did a fine job for the first few years, but then he went insane. For once, we mean that literally: He had some mental problem for which they had no specific name at the time. The court system filed “a formal notice of Pickering’s derangement” and replaced him. He was back in the job soon, however, thanks to a shake-up in the court system, and by this point, the act under which the circuit court could easily replace a problem judge was repealed. Now, the only way to remove a judge like him was impeachment by Congress.
The case that would get him impeached happened in October 1802. Pickering showed up to court drunk. He ordered a confused marshal to come sit next to him, to keep him company, since he was feeling lonely. He got angry with one of the lawyers in the room and tried to beat him with his cane, then he announced that he was going to dispense with all testimony and shorten the trial to four minutes long. Everyone objected, so he instead postponed the trial to the next day, saying he’d be sober then. The next day, he showed up even drunker than before.
Kicking him out of office at this point would suit one political party well — the Jeffersonians, since Pickering was a Federalist, and they wanted to replace him with one of their own. They couldn’t, however, impeach him for his insanity. The only grounds for impeachment laid out in the constitution were “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This latest trial of his gave them something they could call misdemeanors, based on a loose definition of “misdemeanors” as meaning basically any kind of unseemly conduct. They had to leave any mention of madness out of the impeachment articles, instead just calling him “a man of loose morals and intemperate habits.”
Pickering didn’t show up at his impeachment trial. He found travel too scary. His accusers had to keep rewriting motions to come up with something everyone would vote on, and in the end, the campaign succeeded. He was impeached and convicted. It seemed like the Jeffersonians would now use this as a template to remove a bunch more judges for purely political purposes.
That didn’t happen. Pickering was the first American official to be impeached and convicted, and the Senate would go on to impeach and convict only seven more judges ever — only seven more people of any kind, since all other impeachments (including of three presidents) led to acquittals. Three of those convictions of judges, by the way, happened in quick succession in the 1980s. Who knows, maybe we’ll be getting some more soon.