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Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Thompson

Supreme Court of Mississippi

May 21, 2015


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[¶1] The Commission on Judicial Performance filed a formal complaint on November 12, 2013, against Rickey W. Thompson, Justice Court Judge, District 4, Lee County, Mississippi, charging him with judicial misconduct constituting violations of Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(1), 3B(2), 3B(4), 3B(8), 3B(1), and 3C(2) of the Code of Judicial Conduct and constituting willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute in violation of Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, as amended. The formal complaint was comprised of four separate charges:

a. Count One related to Inquiry No. 2013-104 regarding the consolidation of two complaints arising from contempt of court proceedings initiated by Judge Thompson against two deputies of the Lee County Sheriff's Department in the time frame April 29-July 18, 2013, for the deputy's failure to sign and serve a particular bond form directed by Judge Thompson as Justice Court Judge in error on Judge Thompson's part.
b. Count Two related to Inquiry No. 2013-131 regarding a complaint arising from Judge Thompson's conduct with regard to a bail bondsman in the Lee County Justice Court.
c. Count Three related to Inquiry No. 2013-166 regarding a complaint arising from Judge Thompson's handling of a Lee County Justice Court Drug Court matter involving K.F.[1] and her retained attorney, Janelle Lowrey.
d. Count Four related to other allegations of violations by Judge Thompson involving the Lee County Justice Court drug court revealed during the course of the investigation, including (a) multiple participants in the Drug Court in excess of two years in violation of Mississippi Code Section 99-15-26; (b) many participants in the Drug Court incarcerated for long periods of time for " violations" of the drug court policy without affidavit or petition and without proof being presented to the Drug court that an actual violation had occurred; (c) Judge Thompson received and enrolled participants from other court systems that did not have a drug court, even after receipt of an October 19, 2012, Attorney General's opinion that such practice did not comport with Mississippi Code Section 9-23-15(2); (d) Judge Thompson signed and filed false reports with the AOC that inflated the number of drug court participants; and (e) Judge Thompson instructed drug court personnel to refuse to cooperate with the Commission and to conceal documents sought by the Commission pursuant to subpoena.

[¶2] Judge Thompson did not file an answer to the formal complaint but requested a hearing. Initially, the Commission had considered seeking an interim suspension of Judge Thompson from his duties as a Lee County Justice Court Drug Court judge during the pendency of these proceedings. But after the director of the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) had advised Judge Thompson that the certification of the Lee County Justice Court Drug Court had expired, an agreement was memorialized in an Order Setting Aside Order to Show Cause, which was filed on December 13, 2013. That order required, in pertinent part, that Judge Thompson cease operation of the Lee County Justice Court Drug Court and

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cease any efforts to recertify the drug court during the pendency of the formal complaint. Judge Thompson also agreed to recuse himself from hearing any cases involving the Lee County Sheriff's Department and Attorney Janell Lowrey during the investigation and formal hearing process with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance and was ordered to sign any orders necessary to discharge the remaining participants from the drug court and, if proper, expunge their records.

[¶3] This matter subsequently came for hearing on March 5 and 6, and May 7 and 8, 2014, in the Office of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance in Jackson, Mississippi, before a panel committee.[2] Judge Thomspon was represented by counsel. Fourteen witnesses, along with Judge Thompson, appeared and provided testimony.

[¶4] Having heard and considered the evidence, the committee filed its Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law and Recommendations on July 18, 2014. The committee voted 2-1 to recommend that Judge Thompson be removed from office and assessed a $3,500 fine plus costs of $7,693.38. Commission counsel filed objections to those findings on July 28, 2014, and Judge Thompson filed his objections on July 31, 2014.

[¶5] Thereafter, the Commission considered the committee's findings and recommendations. The Commission unanimously adopted the committee's findings of fact and conclusions of law. The Commission then voted 5-2 to adopt the committee's recommendation that Judge Thompson be removed from office and assessed a $3,500 fine plus costs of $7,693.38.


Count One

[¶6] On April 29, 2013, Officer Lance Miller, a deputy with the Lee County Sheriff's Department, was assigned to provide security for the Lee County Justice Court building by screening individuals upon entering the building; Officer Miller was positioned at a door, not in a courtroom. On that date, Judge Thompson was presiding over a protective-order hearing in a domestic-violence matter in open court. Instead of using a bonding condition form designed for use in domestic-violence cases by a judge in open court, which has signature lines for the judge and a defendant, Judge Thompson used and made notations in error on a different bonding condition form that was intended for use by a law-enforcement officer at the scene of a domestic-violence case, which indicates the officer has telephoned a judge to determine what bond amount and/or what conditions should be set. The form Judge Thompson used contained signature lines for an officer/deputy and for a defendant.

[¶7] Not recognizing the error in his selection of the bonding condition form, Judge Thompson made notations on the form (the one that was not intended for use in court) and sent a justice-court deputy clerk from the hearing out of the courtroom to have Officer Miller sign and serve the bonding condition form. Officer Miller informed the clerk that he was not willing to sign the paper presented, as he had never seen that form before. Officer Miller went to the courtroom where Judge Thompson was still on the bench and spoke to Judge Thompson about the form. Officer Miller then stepped outside to call

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his supervisors, since he was not familiar with the piece of paper presented. After reciting the contents of the form, Officer Miller was advised by his supervisors not to sign the form.

[¶8] Later, Officer Miller spoke to Judge Thompson and was questioned by Judge Thompson about his refusal to sign the form, and Officer Miller informed the judge he did not sign the form under the advice of his supervisor. Judge Thompson informed Officer Miller he was going to start contempt proceedings against Officer Miller. Judge Thompson initiated contempt proceedings against Officer Miller by issuing and serving a subpoena on May 6, 2013, for Officer Miller to appear on June 19, 2013, for a show-cause hearing on a contempt of court. John Hall, chief deputy for the Lee County Sheriff's Department, was also served with a subpoena on May 6, 2013, ordering him to appear on June 19, 2013, and give testimony in the matter. No affidavit or pleading was filed by Judge Thompson at that time setting forth the charges against Officer Miller other than the subpoena to " show cause of Contempt of Court of Judges [sic] orders."

[¶9] On or about May 8, 2013, Judge Thompson participated in a telephone conference that included Lee County Prosecutor James Moore and the investigator for the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, Ralph Holiman, to discuss the issuance of the subpoenas to the deputies and the circumstances surrounding the potential for contempt. Moore and Holiman explained to Judge Thompson that the two forms designed by the Office of the Attorney General were for use in domestic-abuse cases and the intended uses of those forms. Thereafter, on May 8, 2013, Judge Thompson signed a " Motion to Rescind Orders for Subpoenas" directed to Debbie Berryman, the justice-court clerk, in which he purported to rescind all " documents related to the Subpoenas for Contempt of Court Probable Cause Hearing of Defendant Lance Miller and the Witness Subpoena of John Hall." Judge Thompson further directed that Officer Miller and Officer Hall be advised that the hearing scheduled for June 19, 2013, would not be held.

[¶10] Because they were still uncertain as to the resolution of the contempt issue, Officers Miller and Hall appeared with counsel before Judge Thompson on June 19, 2013, and requested an order dismissing the matter. On July 18, 2013, Judge Thompson signed the order submitted by the attorney for Officers Miller and Hall, dismissing the contempt-of-court matter with prejudice.

[¶11] Notwithstanding the May 8, 2013, conference call among Judge Thompson, Lee County Prosecutor Moore, and the investigator for the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance regarding the separate use of the two bonding condition forms and the appearance by Miller with counsel on June 19, 2013, to resolve the contempt issue, and notwithstanding the submission and entry of an order on July 18, 2013, that the matter of contempt by Deputy Miller was " dismissed with prejudice" on July 18, 2013, Judge Thompson signed an " Affidavit of Indirect Contempt of Court" stating that Deputy Miller was " in indirect contempt of this court by refusing to obey the order of said Justice Court Judge" for failing to serve a " Notice of Bond with Conditions Issued," as directed on April 29, 2013.

[¶12] Since no final action was taken by Judge Thompson on the contempt proceedings against Officer Miller, the Commission did not find, by clear and convincing evidence, that Judge Thompson had abused the court's contempt power. Accordingly, the Commission found no violation

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as to Count One of the formal complaint.

Count Two

[¶13] Sheriff Johnson testified that, on or about June 19, 2013, he was in Judge Thompson's courtroom for a hearing, and he observed Christopher L. Hoyle, a licensed bail-bond agent, sitting inside the courtroom bar near the bench, in an area normally reserved for court personnel. Sheriff Johnson testified that when a defendant was fined or otherwise sentenced, Hoyle would approach the bench, Judge Thompson would hand him the file, and Hoyle would take the defendant and the file outside the courtroom.

[¶14] Hoyle is a bail bondsman and has a probation company for which he serves as a probation officer. Hoyle is not an employee of the Lee County Justice Court, but he testified he served as a " volunteer probation officer" in the Lee County Justice Court and the drug court. Hoyle testified he " hung around justice court to help with the drug court" and that he routinely would sit in Judge Thompson's court in " the probation area seats."

[¶15] During 2013, Hoyle was suspended from writing bonds at the Lee County Jail by Johnson after complaints were received regarding Hoyle's business practices. Hoyle or the bonding company he worked for had been suspended from writing bonds on previous occasions. Following the suspension, Hoyle and Judge Thompson appeared at Sheriff Johnson's office to inquire about the suspension of Hoyle's privileges. Sheriff Johnson testified that Judge Thompson spoke to him on Hoyle's behalf in an attempt to have the suspension lifted. Although Hoyle testified that Judge Thompson had accompanied him only as a friend for " moral support," the Commission found that Hoyle's testimony that Judge Thompson did not speak at all during the meeting was disingenuous and not credible. The Commission found that, even if Judge Thompson did not speak to Sheriff Johnson, Judge Thompson's presence at the meeting with Hoyle was an overt act to advance the private interests of Hoyle with the sheriff with the intent of having Hoyle's suspension as a bail bondsman lifted.

[¶16] According to the Commission, the evidence established by clear and convincing evidence that Judge Thompson had lent the prestige of his office to advance the private interests of others (Hoyle, a friend and social companion), by appearing with Hoyle in a meeting with the sheriff and speaking on Hoyle's behalf regarding his suspension from writing bail bonds. But the evidence did not establish by clear and convincing evidence that Judge Thompson had engaged in any impropriety by allowing Hoyle to handle ...

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