Breaking the Code: Judges and Misconduct

Tuesday, May 17th 2011, 6:31 pm
By: News 9

By Jennifer Loren, Oklahoma Impact

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Judges are charged with making some of life's most important decisions. That's why we hold them to such high standards. But what recourse do Oklahomans have when they violate those standards? In the past it's been very difficult to hold Oklahoma judges accountable, but changes are on the horizon.

In 2006 the Honorable Donald Thompson was accused of doing something so dishonorable, to many, it was unbelievable.

"It was a fall from grace of epic proportion. When I first got the allegations, I didn't believe them," said Pottawattomie County District Attorney Richard Smothermon.

Smothermon, the prosecutor in Thompson's case, said he offered to cut a deal with him in an effort to save the Oklahoma judiciary from irreparable damage. But Thompson refused and was found guilty of using a sexual device on the bench while presiding over cases. Thompson has been arrested several times since then.

03/03/2011 Related story: Former Creek County Judge Convicted of Indecent Exposure Arrested for Stalking

"In the end it made a mockery of the judicial system," said Smothermon.

While Thompson may be the worst, he's not the only Oklahoma judge accused of doing something dishonorable.

  • District Judge Jesse Harris made headlines when he was accused of exposing himself to two women in a motel parking lot. Felony charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor.
  • In 2005 Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Steve Lile brought shame to one of the state's highest courts after a sex scandal.
  • Right now District Judge Tammy Bass-LeSure is charged with 36 felonies for pocketing thousands of DHS dollars to care for adopted twins who actually lived with someone else.

But in all of those cases the accused judge remained on the job or resigned on their own terms. None of them were kicked off the bench, not even Donald Thompson.

Smothermon said it's "damn near impossible" to get a judge kicked off the bench.

Under the Oklahoma Constitution, five entities can ask to have a judge removed:

  1. The Oklahoma Governor
  2. The Oklahoma Supreme Court
  3. The Oklahoma Attorney General
  4. The Oklahoma House of Representatives
  5. The Oklahoma Bar Association

But only one entity, The Court on the Judiciary, can actually remove a judge from the bench. The last time that happened was in 2002.

"I think we have a trend here to where there's not enough oversight," said State Representative Mike Ritze.

Ritze has asked for a judge's removal on four separate occasions. Ritze filed House resolutions which could have gone up for a vote by the House. But in each case, the resolution never made it that far. Ritze filed legislation that, had it passed, would allow lawmakers to impeach judges who break the law or make questionable rulings.

One judge called into question for a ruling is District Judge Thomas Bartheld. Bartheld sentenced repeat child molester David Earls to one year in prison after he plead guilty to raping a 6 year old. Representative Ritze appeared on CNN with Earls' daughter who was outraged.

"My father is a monster and he needs to stay, he needs to stay in prison," said Earls.

06/20/2009 Related Story: Daughter Says Oklahoma Rapist Deserves Life Sentence

The Attorney General got involved in the case and a grand jury was set to rule on it when David Earls died in prison.

Another judge who sparked outrage, District Judge Tom Lucas, who recently reduced a child-murderer's sentence to 17 years after a jury recommended life. Prosecutors at the Cleveland County District Attorney's office tried to take their own measures to keep Lucas from presiding over their cases, but those failed.

03/31/2011 Related Story: D.A. Wants Cleveland County Judge Removed from All Cases

The Council on Judicial Complaints cannot confirm or deny if they are looking into any judges.

"If the judiciary is not policing itself, which it appears it is not doing with these four judges out there with these complaints, then who's going to do it?" asked Ritze.

The answer may be with the new Judicial Code of Conduct, which went into affect last month. Unlike the code in place for the last fifteen years, this one is mandatory. The rules are binding, enforceable and address specific conduct, including a new rule prohibiting a judge from abusing the prestige of the judicial office.

Read the new Judicial Code of Conduct

Richard Smothermon hopes the new code will encourage the state to enforce higher standards for judges and bring credibility back to the bench.

"The majority of judges are fabulous judges that work hard," said Smothermon. "But people remember the ones that aren't."

Will the new code actually be enforced? We'll be watching.

The process for having a judge removed is still the same, beginning with a complaint that the code of conduct is being violated.

How to file a judicial complaint

The new code of conduct also sets new judicial election procedures in place.