This is a two-part series from Carolina Public Press that examines the role of the Judicial Standards Commission in upholding the integrity of the judicial system in North Carolina. In part one, democracy reporter Mehr Sher provides the historical background and explains the function of the commission. In part two, she will examine the proposed structural changes.
Over the past few months, North Carolina’s courts have decided on high-profile cases on a range of important issues from gerrymandering to voter IDs. While public attention has largely been focused on these court decisions and their consequences, the structural makeup of the judiciary is often overlooked.
Changes to the judiciary’s ethical body, the Judicial Standards Commission, were recently proposed by the N.C. Senate in the state budget, which is still under debate into the new state fiscal year, which started on July 1. Nearly two weeks into the new fiscal year, there is no sign of when the state will pass the budget. If the changes in the budget are passed, it will modify who selects appointments to the commission and who gets to be on the commission.
While these changes may significantly alter the commission, few North Carolinians, outside the legal system, understand what the Judicial Standards Commission does or why it is necessary.
“The average person may not care and may not know, but in execution and in the implementation of the democracy that we are in, it can impact any individual,” said Irving Joyner, a professor of law at N.C. Central University in Durham.
The N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, or JSC, oversees compliance with the Code of Judicial Conduct. It reviews and investigates complaints of misconduct made against judges and justices.
“It’s about who is watching the watchmen,” said Christopher Brook, describing the function of the JSC. Brook is an attorney and partner at Patterson Harkavy, a North Carolina law firm. He ended his term as a judge for the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2021.
The N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, responsible for investigating complaints of misconduct against judges and justices, may undergo changes in its composition. The Senate has proposed changes that have raised questions about its function. Former judges emphasize the importance of the commission as the ethical arm of the judiciary, playing a vital role in upholding the integrity of the judicial system.
The JSC was formed in 1973 “to ensure the impartiality, independence and integrity of the judicial branch.” Since 1960, similar commissions have existed in all 50 states and operate under different names with varying structures of membership but serve the same function.
The JSC investigates citizen complaints against judges and justices, hears cases of misconduct and makes recommendations to the state Supreme Court to take public disciplinary action. The commission also provides guidance, training and resources for judges on compliance with the Code of Judicial Conduct.
Table of contents
- What is current structure of the JSC?
- How does the Commission handle complaints against judges and justices?
- What is the trend in number of complaints received by the Commission?
- What recent cases resulted in Supreme Court-issued disciplinary orders against judges?
- Why is the Commission important for an independent judiciary?
- How do you file a complaint?
What is the current structure of the JSC?
The commission is made up of 14 members, and each one, except for the chair and the vice chair, serves a single six-year term.
The chair presides over the commission, which is made up of judges, attorneys, and citizens, or members of the public. Appointments to the JSC are made by the chief justice, the N.C. State Bar Council, the governor and the General Assembly.
All the appointments under this structure represent key groups that maintain checks and balances in the judiciary, according to former judges and legal experts.
“The current composition, which features judges, laypeople and attorneys, makes sense,” Brook said. “Judges, laypeople and attorneys are the key stakeholders impacted by our court and potential judicial misconduct.”
The chief justice selects six judges: two each from the Court of Appeals, Superior Court and District Court. The two appointments from the Court of Appeals serve as chair and vice chair of the commission.
The state Bar Council selects four attorneys.
While the four citizen members are selected by the governor and the General Assembly — two are appointed by each. The president pro tempore of the state Senate and the speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives make recommendations for citizen members in the General Assembly.
Currently, the commission is headed by Judge Chris Dillon of the Court of Appeals as chair and Judge Jeffery K. Carpenter of the Court of Appeals, as vice chair.
How does the commission handle complaints against judges and justices?
Individuals — attorneys, family of parties to a case, citizens, other judges and court staff — can file written complaints against judges and justices to the commission, which reviews the submitted complaints.
The JSC considers complaints against District Court, Superior Court, Appellate Court and Supreme Court judges and justices, as well as the commissioner and deputy commissioner of the N.C. Industrial Commission. However, it does not consider complaints against administrative law judges, federal judges, magistrates, district attorneys, clerks of court, court employees or personnel, or private attorneys.
Complaints are investigated for violating judicial conduct or statutory grounds for disciplinary action under G.S. 7A-376(b). Allegations of physical or mental incapacity that hinder the performance of the judge’s duties are also investigated by the JSC.
The Supreme Court decides whether to go by the commission’s recommendations or to modify or reject them. Depending on the misconduct, recommendations for disciplinary action range from public reprimand, censure, suspension and, in some instances, removal from office.
The Supreme Court seldom, if ever, rejects cases from the commission, according to Wanda Bryant, a former judge and a former chair of the Judicial Standards Commission. Bryant, who retired in 2020, was the first woman to chair the commission in its 50-year history.
“During my six-year tenure, I don’t recall any of the cases being rejected by the Supreme Court,” she said.
All the proceedings before the JSC, documents and filed pleadings are confidential unless the Supreme Court issues disciplinary orders. The commission has issued public reprimands in the past, which were also the exception and are publicly available.
Between 2007-13, the commission had statutory powers to issue public reprimands, which were repealed in 2013. During this period, it issued 17 public reprimands for less severe judicial misconduct for issues ranging from driving under the influence of impairing substances to allowing personal disagreements to influence judicial conduct.
Since the commission’s inception, the Supreme Court has issued 66 disciplinary orders, based on its findings, against judges and a deputy commissioner of the N.C. Industrial Commission.
What is the trend in the number of complaints received by the commission?
The commission receives hundreds of complaints about judges and justices each year. Last year, it received a total of 560 complaints, and 470 of those were new complaints, according to the commission’s annual report for 2022.
Table 1: 2022 Complaint and Workload Summary. Source: North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, Annual Report for 2022.
Additionally, 90 pending matters carried over from 2021, of which seven were disciplinary proceedings. The majority of these complaints, or more than 300, were against District Court judges.
Approximately 64%, or 361 of the 560 complaints, were dismissed upon initial review, the report said, and 14.6% were dismissed after an initial investigation.
Table 2: Summary of Commission Action in 2022. Source: North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, Annual Report for 2022.
Dismissals, or rejecting a complaint, usually occur either when the commission has no jurisdiction over the complaint, the allegations are too vague, or an initial investigation shows that the complaint was unsubstantiated.
In 2022, the JSC considered 28 formal investigations into the alleged misconduct to substantiate complaints based on its findings. Only 10 of these investigations resulted in disciplinary proceedings or hearings.
Last year, the most common kind of judicial misconduct alleged in the complaints was largely legal error, with more than 350 complaints, followed by denial of a fair hearing and bias.
Table 8: Types of Judicial Misconduct Alleged in 2022. Source: North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, Annual Report for 2022.
None of the complaints led to recommendations for public discipline to the Supreme Court in 2022.
Over the past five years, the commission has seen an upward trend in the number of complaints it receives.
Table 9: Five-year trends, 2018-2022. Source: North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission, Annual Report for 2022.
It received more than 2,400 complaints from 2018-22. Only 13 of those complaints resulted in disciplinary hearings, and eight complaints resulted in recommendations of public discipline.
What recent cases resulted in Supreme Court-issued disciplinary orders against judges?
In 2022, none of the complaints resulted in a Supreme Court-issued disciplinary order. In 2021, two disciplinary orders were issued separately against District Court Judges William F. Brooks and C. Randy Pool.
Brooks, who currently serves as the District Court judge for District 23, covers Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes and Yadkin counties. He was suspended for 30 days in 2021, according to a N.C. Supreme Court-issued disciplinary order.
Brooks violated the Judicial Code of Conduct “by serving as executor for the estates of two former clients,” a couple who were not members of his family, and by “collecting substantial fees or commissions for such service and failing to properly report that income.” In 2016, he received approximately $90,000 from the couple for serving as executor of their estate.
The code prohibits judges from being executors for estates for individuals who are not family members. It also requires judges to report if they receive an income that is more than $2,000 for nonjudicial activities and disclose why they received the amount. Brooks admitted to his misconduct in the case.
Pool, the former chief District Court judge for District 29A, served McDowell and Rutherford counties. He retired in 2019. Pool was censured, or publicly condemned, in 2021 for violating the code of conduct “that brings the judicial office into disrepute,” court records say.
The commission’s statement of charges in the court records included charging Pool with violating the code “by engaging in sexual misconduct while serving as and exploiting his position as Chief Judge of his judicial district through a pattern of predatory sexual advances towards numerous women.”
Pool “initiated and engaged in conversations with at least 35 different women that ranged from inappropriate and flirtatious to sexually explicit” over the course of six months, according to the censure.
In 2021, Carolina Public Press reported that Pool, who charged a Marion woman, Jennifer Tierce, with extortion for exposing his sexually explicit texts, would continue to prosecute the case against her even after he was censured by the N.C. Supreme Court.
In September 2021, Tierce pleaded guilty to extorting the former judge and was offered a plea deal and a prayer for judgment condition, meaning she did not need to serve jail time.
“There’s not a whole lot of cases where I wonder to myself, who was the victim here? And who should be the defendant?” Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey said in open court.
Pool briefly commented on his censure to News 13 after the hearing concluded. “We all make mistakes and get our eye off the ball,” he said. “I am a Christian and I accept responsibility.”
Why is the commission important for an independent judiciary?
From judges found receiving tens of thousands of dollars of undisclosed income to committing sexual misconduct, the commission’s investigations into complaints have led to more than 66 Supreme Court-issued disciplinary orders since its inception in 1973.
“It’s the ethical gatekeeper of the judiciary,” said Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, about the function of the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission. Morey served as Durham District Court judge for 18 years and a chief District Court judge for five years before joining the General Assembly in 2017.
The commission serves an important role in maintaining necessary checks and balances within the judiciary and in investigating judicial misconduct, former judges say.
“Lawyers, litigants, people who appear in front of judges or justices may have legitimate complaints, and there has to be a mechanism for those people to have their complaints investigated and heard by an independent, nonbiased group of people to decide if a judge has violated the code of judicial conduct or not,” Morey said.
How do you file a complaint?
Concerned individuals looking to file complaints against judges who may have violated the judicial code or committed misconduct can file a complaint here.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.