Public Comments for: HB761 - Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission; availability of complaint forms.
In support of HB 761.
My name is Elizabeth Lancaster, and I served as a public defender for the County of Loudoun for 15 years, prior to going into private practice in 2020. One of the main reasons I left a job I loved was the absolute frustration I felt with the Bench. I could no longer advise my clients on what to expect in Court due the incredibly disparate treatment they were likely to receive from the Court depending on the Judge they were to appear in front of. Many local practitioners sat and watched in horror as criminal cases turned into nothing more than a grudge match between the Commonwealth's Attorneys Office and the Bench... with little to no reference to the facts, mitigating circumstances, or wishes of the litigants. My role, the role of my client, the role of the victim, and societal impact of crime no longer counted as much as the Bench's display of hostility towards the Commonwealth, rightly or wrongly deserved in many cases. The Commonwealth's Attorney can be held accountable in multiple transparent and public ways. Judges, however, seem to be immune from this level of review and scrutiny to the constituency they serve. No one public body has a more dramatic impact on their local citizenry than the Bench. And yet that is the one public body that the citizenry have no true ability or knowledge of how to call to account. One of my first cases as a private practitioner was to represent a gentleman who was charged with disorderly conduct at a School Board Meeting. His daughter had been raped in a school bathroom, and he attended his first ever school board meeting to hear the discussions of safety in the schools. He was not only silenced via arrest, but was then labeled a domestic terrorist for having the audacity to attempt to take part in holding his School Board accountable. Over the last year I have watched first hand as multiple local public bodies have fought to conceal their own wrong doing. While some of my own personal beliefs may differ from my client, I will always stand up for any individual being charged by the state. And I do so without fear of recourse or because I live and breathe by the integrity of our Justice System as mandated by the Constitution of the United States of America. I will always stand up for any individual attempting to speak truth to power. Holding our elected officials accountable is not only a right, but a duty imposed upon all citizens. When citizens are unable to meaningfully participate in holding a public body accountable, then we are left with a broken system. The JIRC process has already demonstrated that it cannot hold the Bench accountable. I'd bet that very few citizens understand the JIRC process or how to properly file a complaint. And those of us who do know, know that many times it is a meaningless exercise of self-flagellation. And this has to stop. I am writing today to voice my support for HB761 as the first of many steps to provide meaningful and transparent oversight of the Judges in our Commonwealth. I am writing today because I have witnessed, first hand, that those public bodies seeking to shield themselves from public scrutiny are most often the most guilty of incompetence in carrying out their elected duties to their constituencies. Any argument against transparency and accountability should be viewed with incredible skepticism. And there is no reason to treat our elected Bench any differently than any other public body.
HB761 is all about transparency. I am a fan of this bill because it helps create awareness of the existence of such an important body as the JIRC. Not many residents and attorneys in the Commonwealth even know it exists and it is a resource to help make our system of justice better! Feedback is so important to the development of us all of us, especially to our judges who get reviewed infrequently. By then, it is too late to nip bad behavior in the bud. So, this is an opportunity to get things right before they fester and turn into something that is potentially bad. Most judges are studied and wonderful, but this would help root out the handful of bad actors or uncover patterns of behavior before a judicial term ends. By learning of issues early, no disciplinary action may be necessary, but perhaps instead just some training and mentoring before bad habits develop. This will help make for even better judges, fairer, respectful systems, and create more transparency and open government. Thank you!
Right now, the judicial branch of government has the least oversight of the three branches of government. It is not subject to meaningful transparency and review as judges are, with few exceptions, permitted de facto lifetime appointments after their first election. The one mechanism for judicial review, the JIRC, is effectively useless as a means of providing accountability for judicial misconduct. Last year, of the more than 350 judicial complaints made to the JIRC, only six were found to properly set forth a complaint that properly referenced the judicial canons. Five of those were dismissed after counselling the offending judge. Because the JIRC has not disclosed the nature of the other complaints, one can only surmise that the other 350 complaints were procedurally defaulted as not being properly submitted. This does not mean that certain judges are not misbehaving, but largely suggests that the process of ensuring that complaints are properly submitted is widely misunderstood. This bill is an important step, with minimal economic impact, in ensuring that all branches of the government are subject to the examination by the public in the bright light of day. I cannot imagine any person who seeks responsible, limited government that is beholden to the citizens would oppose this mechanism that ensures all citizens, including those marginalized by economic and other factors, greater voice in demanding transparency and accountability among all three branches of government.
I support this bill so the public is aware these forms exist and know there is a process in place and a remedy available. This will build public trust. Residents of the Commonwealth must have rights and a say in how their state is run. Residents of the Commonwealth have no idea JIRC exists. The public has the right to track judges’ performance and see any patterns of inappropriate or unaccountable behavior and even provide an option for CLE/retraining. How would a legislator know not to reappoint a judge if there was not a track record of his/her performance? How can the legislature know the misconduct or poor performance, discrimination from the bench if they do not know what others in the courtroom are experiencing first hand (attorneys, officers, litigants, etc.). They cannot know what others are experiencing if it is only attorneys that know the JIRC exists. By making hard copy complaint forms in court offices across the state (with a sign) it forces clerks to direct complainants and by making them downloadable on every website with information and instructions creates access and knowledge which will inevitable cause more complaints to be filed. Yes, some will be frivolous, but some will be telling and reveal patterns of behavior! We in the Commonwealth deserve to know how our state is being judged!!!
Judges wield considerable power. Some judges wield that power inappropriately and are not in any way held accountable. The members of the General Assembly should be aware of any instances or patterns of impropriety before Judges are reappointed. JIRC complaints are a mechanism to bring those issues to the attention of the General Assembly. The general public is not aware that they can file Judicial Complaints. Most attorneys are not even aware of how the JIRC operates. So therefore Complaint forms with attached copies of or references to the Judicial Canons must be made available. Forms and links should be available on local and the Virginia Supreme Court website. Without receiving feedback from the community, legislators are NOT informed as to issues or patterns of impropriety. Issues and patterns of impropriety do exist, and it is a discredit to the community for Judges to be reappointed blindly with no input from those who have been affected by them. Thank you.
Virginians mistreated in court need to know how to complain of judicial misconduct. This bill gives them knowledge of and access to their legal rights. I support this. Andi Geloo Fairfax (attorney)