I believe that everyone has heard that judges are to avoid "any appearance of impropriety." This often means that if the judge has a personal relationship with attorneys, victims, police officers, or witnesses in a case, the judge discloses the relationship to the attorneys and considers recusing or removing him or herself from the case. For example, a judge may have a child in the same class as the child of a witness. The judge would disclose the relationship to the attorneys in the case, and in such a situation, the attorneys would probably not seek the judge's recusal because the relationship was minor. However, if the judge was the godmother for the witness's child, then the relationship would probably mandate the judge's recusal.
In a Florida case, a judge presided over a murder trial and never disclosed that she was involved in a personal relationship with the prosecutor. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to death by the judge. On appeal, the defendant somehow became aware of the relationship and successfully had his conviction overturned. Did the judge's relationship actually impact the outcome of the trial? No one knows, but the failure to disclose the relationship clearly gives rise to the appearance of impropriety and mandated a reversal of the conviction. Because of the judge's failure to disclose her relationship with the prosecutor, a man may have been improperly convicted. Even if the man is guilty, now the government must pay for yet another expensive murder trial. All this could have been avoided.
Ethics Violations - Rules Apply to Judges Too
An investigation and judicial ethics case was commenced by the state judicial conduct board. It sounds as if the judge testified before the judicial panel about the relationship, but it was later believed that the judge was less than honest as she downplayed the extent of her relationship. The judge avoided judicial punishment by resigning her position.
While the ex-judge may have believed that she had avoided being punished for her conduct as a judge, she was wrong. After resigning, the ex-judge kept her legal license and probably returned to practice as a lawyer. The state disciplinary board for lawyers brought an ethics complaint against her for the judicial misconduct. The prosecuting attorney received a 2 year suspension for his failure to disclose the relationship, but the ex-judge was disbarred. I suspect that the judge's sentence was more severe because the disciplinary board felt that the judge had been deceptive in explaining her relationship to the judicial conduct board.
Good People Make Mistakes
As a State College criminal defense lawyer since 2004, I have met a lot of great people that made a mistake and got themselves into legal trouble. Many of those clients admit that they made a mistake, want to accept responsibility for the error in judgment, and move forward. This case is an example of a person making a mistake, hiding the mistake, and then not being truthful in disclosing the mistake. Had the judge been honest, she probably would have received a punishment similar to or the same as the prosecutor's punishment instead of being disbarred. This is also a prime example that shows that the rules apply to everyone, even judges.