Stam Responds to President Arrowood's Op-Ed
The op-ed article “An Outrageous Blanket of Secrecy over N.C. Courts,” printed in the News and Observer on November 12, 2014, is wrong and much ado about very little.
Charge: All proceedings before the Judicial Standards Commission are now under a blanket of secrecy.
Fact: There are 6 types of results – admonishment, private reprimand, public reprimand, censure, suspension and removal. The change in the 2013 law was primarily for public reprimand. A public reprimand is no different than censure. Censure is public and it is a reprimand. The procedure for a public reprimand was made the same as the procedure for censure since that is what it is. If the Supreme Court issues a public reprimand, censure, suspension, or removal then the entire record of the proceedings is no longer confidential.
Charge: The Supreme Court will be the final arbiter of discipline of its own members rather than, as previously, a panel of the Court of Appeals. There is no way the Supreme Court can discipline a member of its own bench.
Fact: In 2008 the House of Representatives expelled one of its members, a member of the majority party and a powerful committee chairman. In 2007 Speaker Jim Black resigned when he knew his own party would no longer defend him. When there is a real and substantial ethics violation, public institutions can and do discipline (including expulsion) members. The concept of a lower court, the Court of Appeals, disciplining a member of a higher court is bizarre and has been opposed by such authorities as former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell. What if I suggested that the House be in charge of removing errant senators? Or what if I suggested the Senate discipline House members? What if I suggested that a town planning board be in charge of removing members of the town council? It is the Supreme Court that tells the Court of Appeals when it is wrong on the law. To have 7 members of that Court with power to discipline or remove members of the Supreme Court is real bias.
Charge: This involves a “secret trial behind closed doors (which) is the hallmark of a totalitarian government.”
Fact: There are many other ways in which the sins, crimes and errors of judges are corrected. If their acts are criminal, judges are subject to indictment and a very public trial by state or federal prosecutors. This happened to District Judge Garey Ballance who was indicted in federal court, removed from office and sent to prison in 2005. A judge convicted in state court of corruption in office would automatically be removed. But the grand jury proceedings and the deliberations of the trial jury have been completely confidential for centuries, as well they should be, in order to protect the reputation of those wrongfully accused.
A judge will be automatically removed if the judge is disbarred by the N.C. State Bar. Those proceedings are totally confidential. Ironically the bar association is now complaining about a much lesser degree of confidentiality.
And judges are subject to a very public impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the Senate. Conviction results in removal from office. Justices Ashe, Spencer and Williams (1786), Pearson (1870), Jones (1871), Norwood (1859), Furches and Douglas (1901) were all impeached. Two resigned before conviction and six were acquitted by the Senate.
But most complaints about judges are from litigants who do not like how the judge ruled. They confuse ethics with error. That remedy is by appeal to a higher court. An appeal is completely open and a matter of public record from start to finish.
Rep. Paul Stam