Disciplining Judges

Federal and state judges are subject to impeachment, reprimands, other sanctions.

How are judges disciplined?

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Answer In the federal courts, Article III judges can be removed from office only by impeachment by the House of Representatives and conviction by the U.S. Senate. Under the Constitution, grounds for impeachment are "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." In the history of our country, the House has voted to impeach 13 federal judges. Eleven were tried and seven actually have been convicted in a trial before the Senate and removed from office. Impeachment and removal generally have been for crimes, corruption or abuse of office. No federal judge has been removed based on his or her substantive judicial opinions.

Short of impeachment, federal judges also can be disciplined for lesser violations by the Judicial Conference and/or by the Judicial Councils in each circuit, which are responsible for judicial discipline. Sanctions meted out to federal judges include a public or private reprimand, stripping a judge of case assignments, certifying disability or requesting voluntary retirement.

Source: American Bar Association, Chicago, Illinois.

What about disciplining state court judges?

Answer All state constitutions provide for the impeachment, removal and other discipline of state judges. Grounds for disciplining judges are spelled out in each state's constitution, statutes or court rules.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have created judicial disciplinary commissions that investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate cases of judicial misconduct. They also impose or recommend to a higher body a variety of sanctions ranging from censure, reprimand and suspension to removal in cases in which it has been determined that misconduct occurred. Members of these commissions usually include judges, lawyers and private citizens.

Source: Carp, Robert A., Stidham, Ronald, Judicial Process in America, Congressional Quarterly Inc., Washington, D.C., 1993.

How do judges know what's ethical?

Answer Federal judges follow the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, a set of ethical principles and guidelines adopted by the Judicial Conference of the United States. The Code of Conduct provides guidance for judges on issues of judicial integrity and independence, judicial diligence and impartiality, permissible extra-judicial activities, and the avoidance of impropriety or even the appearance of impropriety.

Some 47 states and the District of Columbia have adopted, in substance, the American Bar Association's Model Code of Judicial Conduct, while the remaining three states have enacted their own rules. Standards govern judges' conduct during judicial proceedings, as well as speech, business activities, civic and charitable involvement and political and other associations. The current Model Code was adopted by the ABA in 1990.

In general, judges may not hear cases in which they have either personal knowledge of the disputed facts, a personal bias toward a party to the case, earlier involvement in the case as a lawyer, or a financial interest in any party or subject matter of the case. Source: Understanding the Federal Courts, Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

Source: Understanding the Federal Courts, Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

What if an individual has a complaint against a judge?

Answer In 1980 Congress passed the Judicial Councils Reform and Judicial Conduct and Disability Act. This act establishes a statutory procedure to deal with complaints against any federal district judge, circuit court judge, bankruptcy judge or magistrate judge. To bring a complaint, individuals submit written statements to the clerk for the chief judge of the circuit court of appeals or applicable national court on which the judge sits. A chief judge can also initiate a proceeding based on informal complaints received.

Complaints about the behavior of state court judges can be filed as a grievance with the state's judicial conduct organization.

Source: Title 28, U.S. Code, Section 372(c).
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