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Teflon Robe: 6 takeaways from Reuters' investigation of misconduct by U.S. judges

(Reuters) - Secretly disciplining judges is so common in America that in 3,613 cases from 2008 through 2018, states punished judges privately – withholding from the public details of their offenses, including the identities of the judges themselves, a Reuters investigation found.

The Washington County Courthouse Judicial Center where Judge Curtis DeLapp sat on the bench is seen in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, U.S. November 19, 2019. Picture taken November 19, 2019. REUTERS/Nick Oxford

This secret system of resolving cases that involve miscreant judges has parallels to how misbehavior by police has been handled. “The public has been alerted as it never has been before to the way police misconduct is concealed,” said Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University. “The same is true for judges.”

For its “Teflon Robe” project, Reuters also identified and reviewed 1,509 cases from the last dozen years – 2008 through 2019 – in which judges resigned, retired or were publicly disciplined following accusations of misconduct.

Reuters found that thousands of state and local judges across America were allowed to keep their positions on the bench after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold. Indeed, 9 of every 10 judges were allowed to return to the bench after they were sanctioned for misconduct.

In Part 2 of the investigation, Reuters examines judicial oversight in Oklahoma, which has one of America’s most secretive systems for handling judges accused of misconduct but also one that illustrates the widespread lack of scrutiny wayward judges face nationwide.

Here are six key takeaways from Part 2 of the Reuters investigation, the first comprehensive accounting of judicial misconduct nationally:

* Oklahoma is among at least 38 states that issue private sanctions when judges misbehave. The name of the judge remains secret, and most of these states keep from the public details of the transgression and the discipline, undermining the public’s ability to assess the performance of judges, many of whom are elected by voters.

* Oklahoma’s system of handling judges accused of misconduct is the most opaque and dormant judicial disciplinary system in America. Until it brought charges in 2018 against the now-former judge highlighted in the Reuters report, Curtis DeLapp, Oklahoma hadn’t publicly filed misconduct charges against a judge in 14 years – the longest stretch of inactivity of any state in recent decades.

* That lack of aggressive public oversight means that, in Oklahoma and elsewhere, judges may feel free to behave with impunity. And in the unlikely case judges are publicly brought up on misconduct charges, many states enable judges to simply resign or retire, putting a stop to the charges and any investigation of potential wrongdoing.

* In leaving the bench, DeLapp became one of at least 341 judges across the United States to escape punishment or further investigation in the past dozen years by resigning or retiring amid misconduct allegations, Reuters found.

* Private discipline has been used to mask significant violations of the law. In Colorado, for example, the judicial commission has publicly disciplined four judges since 2008 but has privately sanctioned 52. Among those whose names and other identifying information remain hidden from the public: judges disciplined for sexual harassment, for drunken driving, for delayed rulings, and for demonstrating a “pattern of errors in handling trials or issuing rulings that indicate a lack of competence.”

* At least 5,206 people were directly affected by a judge’s misconduct. The victims ranged from people who were illegally jailed to those subjected to racist, sexist and other abusive comments from judges in ways that tainted the cases.

To read this latest chapter of the investigation, click here

To read Part 1, click here

And to explore our interactive database and read official documents about judicial misconduct, click here

Reporting By Michael Berens and John Shiffman. Edited by Blake Morrison.