Concealing judicial discipline

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 12, 2013

RALEIGH — When any part of a scandal involving a public entity or well-known person becomes public, the details usually come out as well.
Try as they might, by hiring lawyers or hiding behind secretive processes, those involved generally have trouble covering up the particulars once the scent of scandal is in the air.
People talk, reporters snoop and, in the age of the Internet and social media, connecting dots that can reveal the truth has become a lot easier.
If you don’t believe that is the case, you could ask former UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp how all that dissembling regarding the athletics scandal over there worked out.

This reality of public scandal is one of the reasons that Gov. Pat McCrory should follow the recommendation of the North Carolina Bar Association and veto a bill recently approved by the legislature that would change how the state disciplines its judges.
Under current law, a 13-member panel of mostly judges and lawyers called the Judicial Standards Commission handles much of the discipline involving judges. The commission can dismiss complaints, issue public reprimands or pass along recommendations for more serious disciplinary action to the state Supreme Court.
The legislation would give the Supreme Court more authority, make more of the disciplinary process secretive, and allow the justices on the Supreme Court to oversee complaints made against their fellow justices. Right now, a panel of Court of Appeals judges decides any complaints lodged against a Supreme Court justice.
Legislators aren’t saying much about why they decided to change the process.
If they somehow thought that they might be shielding judges from publicly-exposed complaints that could damage their reputations and public confidence in the courts, they may be doing the opposite.
Just because more of the disciplinary process takes place behind closed doors does not mean that the public won’t learn what has happened.

If, like in Wisconsin, which operates under a similar system, a justice were to be accused of, say, choking another justice, and then other justices recused themselves from considering a complaint so that no quorum could decide the case, would that make the court look better or worse?
Would that instill public confidence in the courts? (That really happened, by the way.)
Or, perhaps the state’s high court dismisses a complaint, only to have the details later batted about in the press in a way that makes the decision appear political. Is that good for the justices and public confidence in them?
Additional public oversight of public officials and public institutions is not only good for the taxpayers who foot the bill and the residents who are supposed to be served equally under the law; that oversight is good for the public officials and public institutions, too.
It provides a means of showing that decisions are not political, that they are fair and equitable.
Changing the system to create less oversight and more conflicts of interest ultimately may harm judges more than anyone else.

Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.