We talk about lawyers a lot on this blog, including how to complain about your lawyer. What if you have a beef with the judge? That may seem like a stretch; sure, you can complain about the lawyer you hired, but you didn’t hire the judge. Even so, if a judge takes an action that could be considered to be unethical, misconduct, or evidence of mental or physical incapacity, there are ways to complain.
The American Bar Association (“ABA”) has adopted a Model Code of Judicial Conduct that establishes general rules for judges to follow. In a nutshell, the judge must avoid the appearance of impropriety, be impartial, and avoid conflicts of interest. The Model Code does not provide for its own enforcement; for that purpose, the ABA has adopted Model Rules for Judicial Disciplinary Enforcement, which include the establishment of a Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Commission is empowered to receive complaints, but the mechanism for making a complaint is not addressed.
ABA Model Codes and Rules are guidelines intended to help individual states craft their own versions, and most states have adopted them at least in part. Some states have gone farther; New York’s Rules of Judicial Conduct are much more detailed than the ABA’s Model Code, although they address the same general issues. In New York, as in most states, codes and rules of judicial conduct are part of the state’s general court rules. The ABA provides a comparison of its Model Code of Judicial Conduct to each state’s version.
Since the Model Rules have no complaint mechanism, the individual states all implement their own process for making a complaint. For example, New York’s procedure permits complaints to be filed with an Administrative Judge, the Inspector General, or the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. As in most states, New York’s Commission’s operating rules are not part of the general court rules, because they apply only to the procedures of the Commission and not to judges in general.
Both New York’s Commission on Judicial Conduct and Washington State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct provide a complaint form but also accept complaints in the form of a brief written statement. Both also provide information about the confidentiality rules that apply to complaints. Similarly, Arkansas’ Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission provides a print and online complaint form, instructions, and information pamphlet and a report of its activities.
Of interest in the 2011 Arkansas report (the most recent published) are the sheer number of complaints: 248. Of those complaints, 178 were filed by litigants, only 11 by court personnel and attorneys, and the rest from various other sources. The Commission dismissed 244 of those, and imposed admonitions, reprimand, or censure for 4 of them. Statistics are similar in other states; very few complaints about judges are found to valid. For example, in New York – a much larger state – only 12 public disciplinary opinions were issued in 2014.
To find court rules, look in CourtReference’s “Self Help and Legal Research” category of resources for your state. To find information about complaints and disciplinary procedures for both lawyers and judges, look in our “Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral” category – because we like to keep our lawyer- and judge-related resources together.