N.C. has specific guidelines for disciplining judges

North Carolina’s Constitution and changes to state laws passed by the General Assembly in 2013 set forth specific processes for disciplining and possibly removing judges who are found to have violated the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.

Prior to 1973, the only option for disciplining judges was impeachment by the General Assembly, according to an analysis for the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The state Constitution outlines five broad reasons for which a judge may be censured or removed: willful misconduct in office; willful and persistent failure to perform his duties; habitual intemperance; conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude; or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the office into disrepute.

A state constitutional amendment that took effect in 1973 authorized the General Assembly to adopt additional procedures for disciplining judges, which led to the creation of the state’s Judicial Standards Commission to investigate complaints and make recommendations to the state Supreme Court.

In 2007, the General Assembly expanded the commission’s authority to include issuing public reprimands, while continuing its existing practice of issuing private letters of concern to judges who were the targets of complaints.

“Forty plus years of experience with the current disciplinary framework have resulted in [53] published opinions of the supreme court on recommendations from the Judicial Standards Commission plus [17] public reprimands by the commission while it had that authority from 2007 until 2013,” Michael Crowell, a retired professor and an associate director of the School of Government at UNC, wrote in his analysis of the changes in discipline for judges.

However, in 2013, General Assembly restricted public access to the commission’s procedures and scaled back its authority.

Today, the responsibility for removal or censure rests almost entirely with the state Supreme Court, based on changes to state law that the General Assembly passed in 2013 and the analysis by the School of Government.

Complaints to the state’s Judicial Standards Commission used to be considered public records until 2013.

Now, complaints to the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission about alleged misconduct by judges remain confidential, according to the commission, which is responsible for investigating complaints of misconduct or disability against judges and, if appropriate, making recommendations for public discipline. Private letters of caution issued by the commission – which Crowell had previously estimated to be about 10 per year – are also kept confidential.

However, if the N.C. Supreme Court accepts a recommendation for public discipline, then the recommendation and record are no longer confidential.

At its inception in 1973, the Judicial Standards Commission received 23 complaints; by 2013, that number had climbed to 235 complaints initiated.

An earlier analysis revealed that, during the latter part of the 2000s, some 90 percent of complaints were dismissed after an initial review, Crowell wrote for the School of Government, because they most frequently involved disagreements with a judge’s rulings, not because of violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.