Misjudging the Judges - Massachusetts SJC Moves To Protect Judges Further

THE STATE Supreme Judicial Court last week defanged a nine-member commission responsible for enforcing the standards of judicial conduct and disciplining wayward judges. The SJC claims the move was necessary to reinforce public trust in the integrity of the judiciary. But it may have the opposite effect.

Justices of the state's highest court disapproved of commission actions last year that led to a $50,000 fine and year-long suspension for Plymouth County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Murray. Members of the state's highest court felt strongly that Murray deserved removal from the bench for the sexual harassment of two female employees. And he probably did. But the SJC's response is now raising more eyebrows than the Murray decision. How is public trust served when the SJC, angered by a single decision, strips a commission of its authority to impose serious sanctions, including suspensions and large fines?

The SJC is the last body in Massachusetts that one would expect to find overreacting in such a case. Its members have been criticized from some quarters for the 2003 decision allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. Charges of judicial activism, overreaching, and worse have been leveled at the court. Yet Chief Justice Margaret Marshall has steadfastly supported the principle of deciding each case on its merits, free of meddling and outside influence. In the Murray case, the commission -- composed of three judges, three attorneys, and three lay people -- weighed the facts and reached its conclusion in a manner no different from its routine since 1988, with no interference from the SJC. If the highest court was so disappointed, it might still have found a way to suspend Murray indefinitely. Instead, it targeted the commission.

Judges in Massachusetts enjoy extraordinary job security. They face no contested elections, reappointment hearings, or retention reviews. Such independence serves justice well. But it also means that citizens need an efficient way to lodge misconduct complaints against judges when they go astray. The Commission on Judicial Conduct has been that address. It has reviewed complaints, investigated allegations, and imposed sanctions, provided the judge in question agreed to the disciplinary measures. If the judge balked, formal charges could then be filed with the SJC, which has the final word on discipline.

With its new ruling, the SJC leaves the commission with only a few wrist-slapping duties in the areas of education, training, and counseling. Only the SJC gets to bring down the hammer. And the added duties would significantly increase the SJC workload. The judicial conduct commission, which includes lay members, should retain its clout.