The definition of judicial misconduct is a serious deviation from the accepted practices of a judge in the judicial profession. Misconduct is defined as conduct which is prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.

The rules regarding official judicial misconduct also include rules concerning a judge’s disability, which may be a temporary or permanent condition which renders the judge unable to discharge the duties of their judicial office. 28 USC §§ 351 – 364 provides that any individual may complain about a federal judge whom they believe has committed judicial misconduct.

What are Some Types of Judicial Misconduct?  

A judicial misconduct case begins when an individual files a complaint regarding the conduct of a judge. Examples of conduct which may constitute judicial misconduct may include when the judge:

  • Uses their office to obtain special treatment for relatives or friends;
  • Accepts bribes, gifts, or other personal favors which are related to their office;
  • Engages in improper ex parte communication with a party or counsel for one side of a case;
  • Engages in partisan political activity or makes an inappropriately partisan statement;
  • Solicits funds for organizations;
  • Violates rules or standards which pertain to restrictions on outside income or knowingly violates a requirement for financial disclosure;
  • Engages in offensive, abusive, or unwanted sexual conduct, which includes sexual harassment or sexual assault;
  • Treats attorneys, litigants, judicial employees, or other individuals in a demonstrably hostile and egregious manner;
  • Creates a hostile work environment for judicial employees;
  • Intentionally discriminates based on one of more of the following:
    • Race;
    • Color;
    • Sex;
    • Gender;
    • Gender entity;
    • Pregnancy;
    • Sexual orientation;
    • Religion;
    • National origin;
    • Age; or
    • Disability;
  • Retaliates against individuals who participate in the judicial conduct and disability complaint process or report or disclose judicial misconduct or disability, which may include:
    • Complainants;
    • Witnesses;
    • Judicial employees; or
    • Other individuals;
  • Refuses to cooperate in an investigation of a judicial conduct or disability complaint or the enforcement of a decision under the Rules without good cause; or
  • Fails to call to the attention of the relevant district chief judge or circuit chief judge any reliable information which is reasonably likely to constitute judicial misconduct or disability.

This list does not constitute all of the possible grounds for a complaint. An individual is not permitted to use the complaint process to obtain an automatic disqualification of a judge which is presiding over a case. 

Additionally, the process cannot be used to challenge the correctness of the judge’s decision in a case. A judicial decision which is unfavorable to an individual does not, by itself, establish misconduct or a disability.

How Can Judges Break the Law Inside the Courtroom?

There are certain ways in which a judge may abuse the law they are supposed to uphold. This may include if a judge ignores the law in court. It may also include if a judge:

  • Lies under oath – It is important to note that a judge is always under oath in the courtroom;
  • Cites invalid laws or precedents – This may be hard to catch if an individual is not prepared to discuss these topics;
  • Ignores certain laws or precedents – This is uncommon because a judge typically cannot ignore a law without explaining their reasoning. In this case, the judge would have to break two rules.

Can I Ask a Judge to Recuse Himself if I Believe He Is Biased?

An individual may request a judge to recuse themselves if there is a conflict of interest. A recusal, also called a judicial disqualification, is a request for a judge presiding over a case to remove themselves from that case so a new judge can be chosen.

A recusal is requested by a motion, which the presiding judge may sustain or dismiss. Because of this, the motion should include substantial evidence showing the judicial conflict of interest. If the judge improperly dismisses the motion, the issue may be appealed after the conclusion of the trial.

Title 28 of the Judicial Code, or the United States Code, provides the standards for judicial recusal or disqualification. A judge is required to recuse themselves in any proceeding in which it would be reasonable to question their impartiality.

Both state and federal laws provide that judges are required to recuse themselves if grounds exist to do so. A judge may be subject to punishment for not recusing themselves, depending on the circumstances. 

Examples of situations in which a conflict of interest may exist where a judge should likely recuse themselves include:

  • A personal connection to a party in a case;
  • Personal knowledge of the facts of a case;
  • A familial relationship to one of the attorneys; and
  • A financial interest in the outcome of the case.

Any party to the case, including the plaintiff or the defendant, may make the motion to request the judge recuse themselves from the case. There is not likely to be a penalty if the judge accidentally does not recuse themself, such as in cases where the judge is not aware that proper grounds for recusal exist. However, if proper grounds for recusal did exist, and the judge was aware, there may be penalties levied against the judge for not doing so.

What are Some Examples of Judicial Misconduct? 

A specific example of a judge breaking the law involved a Catoosa County Magistrate Judge in Georgia. This judge engaged in several behaviors which were considered misconduct, including:

  • Smoking marijuana at least once a week;
  • Using the office to advance the personal interests of a family member, specifically a sister-in-law;
  • Inappropriately pointing a firearm at other individuals in the courthouse; and
  • Providing the identity of a confidential informant on a television show.

There are a limited number of examples such as these because, thankfully, they are rare. However, there are likely many instances of misconduct that go unreported because individuals are unaware that the behavior constitutes judicial misconduct or they fear the complaint process.

How Can I Prove Judicial Misconduct?

Judicial misconduct may be difficult to prove if an individual does not know all of the rules. Having a basic familiarity with these rules may help prove judicial misconduct because the individual will be aware of what conduct to look for. 

It is also important to review the examples listed above. This will help an individual be aware of conduct which is considered judicial misconduct. Other helpful actions may include:

  • Taking note of everything possible in writing;
  • Requesting a court reporter;
  • Bringing other court watchers to any hearings; and
  • Having as many issues on paper as possible.

When Can I Complain About Judicial Misconduct?

Any individual is permitted to complain about a federal judge pursuant to 28 USC §§ 351 – 364 if that judge:

  • Engaged in conduct that is damaging to the effective administration of a court; or
  • Becomes unable to discharge their duties because of a mental or physical disability.

As noted above, an individual does not have the right to complain about judicial misconduct if a wrong or poor decision is made by a federal judge. The remedy in this situation is the right to appeal.

How Does a Judicial Misconduct Complaint Work?

The judicial misconduct complaint process follows a step-by-step procedure. The steps include:

  • The individual bringing the complaint must obtain a pre-established form used for complaints regarding judicial misconduct from the clerk of the court;
  • The complaint is then filed with the clerk of the court and provided to the Chief Judge in that district;
  • The Chief Judge reviews the complaint to determine if it requires further investigation or should be dismissed;
  • If the Chief Judge determines that an investigation is necessary, they will appoint a special committee to investigate it;
  • The special committee will then investigate the claim and take the findings of their investigation and submit a report to the pre-established Judicial Council in the district; and
  • Lastly, the Judicial Council will make a decision regarding the steps that should be taken to remedy the judicial misconduct.

Do I Need an Attorney to File a Judicial Misconduct Complaint?

Yes, it is very important to have the assistance of a government lawyer if you believe judicial misconduct has occurred. Your attorney can guide you through each step of the complaint process, explain the relevant issues, and help you defend your complaint.