(WXYZ) - Judges have a lot of power. But, when they are accused of misbehaving, who has power over them? In Michigan, it's not often that judges are taken to task for their conduct on and off the bench. What is considered bad judge behavior and what can be done about it?
Melonie Jackson, a mother of three was representing herself in an ugly custody and divorce case. She says she got a stern talking to from Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Mary Chrzarnowski.
"Mam, do you understand you could potentially go to jail today? Could you please just answer my questions? Do you understand that, yes or no?" asked the judge.
"I was bullied, I was shut up," Jackson told Action News. "She announced to the courtroom that being a mother was not a job…and that I was to go get a job like the rest of the people in the world."
As a family court division judge, Chzarnowski, after twenty years on the bench, has a reputation for being blunt, sometimes yelling at those before her.
Jackson wasn't allowed to speak. Judge Chzarnowski believed her husband's attorney, who said Melonie was holding back visitation and sent Jackson to jail for 30 days, leaving her with a felony record.
"That's a severe sentence," says attorney Mike Sugameli, who represents Jackson. "Drunk driving first and second offence don't get that."
What did Jackson do about it? She filed complaints about Judge Chzarnowski with the Judicial Tenure Commission, an independent organization that secretly investigates allegations of judicial misconduct. The nine appointed commissioners, three chosen by the state bar, two by the governor and four by fellow judges, are not paid, but meet monthly and review every written complaint received.
Action News was there for a rare Judicial Tenure Commission hearing for another judge. Evidence against Jackson County Judge James Justin was presented. In a 272 paragraph complaint, he has been accused, among other things, of dismissing parking tickets for himself, his wife and two members of his court staff. Judge Justin declined to talk to Action News. His case is still pending.
A wide range of actions are possible, from a simple letter to the judge to recommending that the State Supreme Court remove a judge from the bench.
"Sometimes the judge recognizes what he or she has done is so violative of the code of conduct that, some time the judge just resigns," says Paul Fisher, JTC Executive Director.
The commission learns about a judge possibly misbehaving from a complaint that can be filed by anyone. About six hundred requests for investigation are filed each year—but only between five and 10 percent result in a formal complaint and action by the commission.
The complaints, the commission probe and communication with accused judges are all confidential, until decisions about the recommended punishment are made. After that, the sanctions and case facts are made public.
The JTC considers bad behavior to be a felony conviction, failure to perform, misconduct in office, and other violations of the code of judicial conduct, including failing to be fair and courteous.
Since 1980, seven Michigan judges have been removed from the bench based on a JTC recommendation and an order from the State Supreme Court. The Action News investigators recently looked at how some local judges act on, and off the bench.
In Dearborn, three former or demoted employees of the 19th District Court have joined a chorus of lawyers and others who say Chief Judge Mark Somers brings his Christian beliefs into his court, and his decisions. They cite, in the lawsuits and complaints some have filed, the Bible verse that was printed at the bottom of court stationary, until the State Supreme Court ordered it removed. Judge Somers denies the allegations.
'They're not true," says Judge Somers. "In the simplest form, I have never used my own personal religious beliefs to impose them on somebody else."
In Inkster, 22nd District Court Chief Judge Sylvia James was removed from the bench following our investigation into possible wrongdoing. An extensive audit by the State Supreme Court is pending, but James is accused of 33 administrative and accounting issues of concern, many involving the improper handling of court funds cited in previous audits. James has responded to some of the allegations, but is, for now, suspended with pay. Since her suspension she would not comment.
Then there's Judge Chzarnowski, and the day she admonished Melonie Jackson and her ex-husband Scott Jackson during their court fight.
"We all know where each other lives," Chzarnowski announced. "If you show up on my property, I'll shoot you or call the police."
"I kind of set back and said, you're going to shoot me," says Melonie Jackson. As for her ex- husband and his attorney, she says. "They thought it was funny."
That Judicial Tenure Commission decides whether the behavior is out of line. They base it in part on a judge's temperament and demeanor. Thomas Ryan is the Chairman of the JTC.
"We look after misconduct,
not behavior. And sometimes, behavior can cross the line, and in that case, we take it very seriously," says Ryan.
Bottom line: it takes formal, notarized complaints from people to set in motion a formal misconduct investigation by the Judicial Tenure Commission.
Judge Chzarnowski did not return Action News calls. But Melonie Jackson did file three Judicial Tenure Commission complaints against her. All were dismissed stating there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing. In fact, in its 42 year history, only 87 complaints were serious enough to lead to a commission hearing and subsequent action.
To find out how to file a complaint with the Judicial Tenure Commission go to: http://jtc.courts.mi.gov/