DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/17/2012
MISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE HON. H. DAVID CLARK, II, JUDGE.
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: JOHN TONEY DARLENE BALLARD.
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: WILLIAM B. KIRKSEY
¶1. In this judicial misconduct case in which Hinds County Youth Court Judge William L. Skinner, II took action in a case in which he was recused and abused the contempt power, Judge Skinner and the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance submit a Joint Motion for Approval of Recommendations, recommending that Judge Skinner be publicly reprimanded, fined $1, 000, and assessed $100 in costs. This Court finds an appropriate sanction to be a thirty-day suspension without pay, a public reprimand, a $1, 000 fine, and $100 in costs. Furthermore, this Court modifies Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Gibson, 883 So.2d 1155 (Miss. 2004), and its progeny to the extent that they mandate this Court examine moral turpitude as a factor in determining sanctions. In its stead, this Court and the Commission should examine the extent to which the conduct was willful and exploited the judge's position to satisfy his or her personal desires.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
¶2. From January to February 2011, Judge Skinner presided over several cases in Hinds County Youth Court involving six minor siblings, the Cooper children. In those cases, Judge Skinner issued a no-contact order between Mr. Cooper and the children. On February 25, 2011, Judge Skinner signed his order of recusal, stating that "an employee presently of the Hinds County Youth Court is related to the alleged perpetrator in this instance, namely [Mr. Cooper], as well as the person for which aforesaid motion for contempt is issued. Namely [Mrs. Cooper]." Also on February 25, a recusal order was entered disqualifying all Hinds County Court judges from the cases due to the employee being related to the parties to the cases. On March 3, 2011, this Court appointed a special judge, Judge John Price, judge of and for the County Court of Warren County, to preside over the matters involving the Cooper children.
¶3. Although he had recused himself on February 25, 2011, on March 21, 2011, Judge Skinner issued bench warrants for the arrests of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper for contempt of court for violation of the no-contact order. The warrants stated that Mr. and Mrs. Cooper each "shall be held without bond pending hearing in this matter -- no bond per Honorable William "Bill" Skinner pending contempt hearing." Mrs. Cooper was arrested in front of her children and the children were placed in the custody of the Department of Human Services (DHS). Both Mr. and Mrs. Cooper were held in custody for approximately seventy-two hours without notice or a hearing.
¶4. On April 3, 2012, the Commission, acting upon citizen complaints, filed a formal complaint against Judge Skinner charging him with several counts of judicial misconduct. The Complaint accused Judge Skinner of issuing bench warrants for the arrests of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper for contempt of court despite previously having recused himself from the cases involving the Cooper children. Further, the complaint accused Judge Skinner of ex parte communications. As a result of the issuance of the warrants for the arrests of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, the complaint asserts that they were arrested and incarcerated for several days without notice, a hearing, or other required due process safeguards. The complaint thus alleges violations of Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, as well as of Canons 1, 2A, 3B(1), 3B(2), 3B(7), and 3(C)1 of the Code of Judicial Conduct. On April 25, 2012, Judge Skinner filed an answer and a motion to dismiss. The Commission responded to Judge Skinner's motion to dismiss on May 21, 2012, and the Honorable David Clark, Chairman, dismissed Judge Skinner's motion to dismiss on June 28, 2012. A committee was established to hear the case on August 10, 2012.
¶5. On September 19, 2012, the Commission and Judge Skinner consented to an Agreed Statement of Facts and Proposed Recommendations in lieu of a hearing. The agreed-upon facts include:
1)On February 25, 2011, Judge Skinner recused himself from participation in the matters involving the Cooper siblings, as did the other Hinds County Court judges.
2)On March 3, 2011, this Court appointed a special judge to preside over the cases.
3)On March 21, 2011, Judge Skinner signed bench warrants ordering the arrests of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper for contempt of court for violation of the no-contact order issued in the cases. The warrants mandated Mr. and Mrs. Cooper be held without bond.
4)As a result of the issuance of the warrants, Mr. and Mrs. Cooper were arrested "and remained incarcerated for several days without notice, a hearing or benefit of other due process procedural safeguards as outlined in" Cooper Tire & Rubber Company v. McGill, 890 So.2d 859 (Miss. 2004).
¶6. Judge Skinner and the Commission agreed that Judge Skinner violated Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution, and Canons 1, 2A, 3B(1), and 3B(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The agreement eliminated the charges regarding ex parte communications. The Commission and Judge Skinner proposed that Judge Skinner be publicly reprimanded, fined $1, 000, and assessed costs in the sum of $100.
¶7. The entire Commission unanimously agreed to accept the Agreed Statement of Facts and Proposed Recommendation with minor changes on October 12, 2012, and entered its Findings of Facts and Recommendations on October 17, 2012. The Commission filed its Findings of Fact and Recommendations with this Court on October 23, 2012. A Joint Motion for Approval of Recommendations Filed by the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, and supporting brief, were filed on November 21, 2012. In the joint motion, the Commission noted that Judge Skinner had been the subject of four prior disciplinary actions, but did not include the facts surrounding these instances. In fact, no factual information whatsoever regarding the four prior disciplinary actions was included in the record filed with this Court. In order for this Court to properly resolve this case, it is necessary for us to have access to all information considered by the Commission in making its recommendation. Therefore, on its own motion, this Court ordered the Commission to submit to it copies of the four prior disciplinary files on Judge Skinner. This Court has received and reviewed these files.
¶8. This Court has the power, "[o]n recommendation of the commission on judicial performance, " to "remove from office, suspend, fine or publicly censure or reprimand any justice or judge of this state for . . . willful misconduct in office . . . or  conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute[.]" Miss. Const. art. 6, § 177A. Willful misconduct in office includes "the improper or wrongful use of power of his office by a judge acting intentionally, or with gross unconcern for his conduct and generally in bad faith. . . . Necessarily, the term would encompass conduct involving moral turpitude, dishonesty, or corruption, and also any knowing misuse of the office, whatever the motive." Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Boykin, 763 So.2d 872, 874 (Miss. 2000) (quoting In re Quick, 553 So.2d 522, 524-25 (Miss. 1989)). Bad faith may also be found when this Court finds "[a] specific intent to use the powers of the judicial office to accomplish a purpose which the judge knew or should have known was beyond the legitimate exercise of his authority." Boykin, 763 So.2d at 874-75 (quoting In re Quick, 553 So.2d at 524-25). Furthermore, "[w]illful misconduct in office of necessity is conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute." Boykin, 763 So.2d at 874-75. A judge may also bring the judicial office into disrepute through negligence, ignorance, or incompetence not amounting to bad faith. Id. at 875. "[T]his Court can generally recognize examples of such conduct when presented before the Court." Id.
¶9. This Court, as the ultimate decision-maker in judicial performance cases, makes the final determination as to the appropriate action to be taken when a judge has committed willful misconduct or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute, and must conduct an independent review of the entire record. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Thom pson, 80 So.3d 86, 88 (Miss. 2012) (citing Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Boone, 60 So.3d 172, 176 (Miss. 2011)). This Court "accord[s] careful consideration [of] the findings of fact and recommendations of the Commission, or its committee." Thompson, 80 So.3d at 88 (second alteration in original). However, "[t]his Court is not bound by the Commission's findings, and [it] may impose additional sanctions." Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Osborne, 16 So.3d 16, 19 (Miss. 2009). This is true even when the Commission and the judge enter into a joint recommendation – this Court's acceptance of the joint recommendation is not a certainty. See Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Sanford, 941 So.2d 209, 217-18 (Miss. 2006) (placing judges and the Commission on notice that a joint recommendation does not guarantee that this Court will accept the recommended sanctions).
¶10. The Commission and Judge Skinner agree that he violated Canons 1,  2A,  3B(1),  and 3B(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct by his conduct, and the Commission found these violations by clear and convincing evidence. "Whether this behavior was actually willful is of no consequence" to the question of whether Judge Skinner violated the Constitution and the Code of Judicial Conduct, as even ...