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Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Sheffield

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

August 17, 2017

MISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE
v.
JUDGE JOHN H. SHEFFIELD

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 08/06/2016

         MISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL HON. CYNTHIA L. BREWER, Judge

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JANELLE MARIE LOWREY JEFFREY CARTER SMITH COURTNEY BRADFORD SMITH BEN LOGAN DARLENE D. BALLARD BONNIE H. MENAPACE RACHEL WILSON MICHEL

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: DARLENE D. BALLARD RACHEL WILSON MICHEL MEAGAN COURTNEY BRITTAIN

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: BEN LOGAN

          DICKINSON, P.J.

         ¶1. Lee County Justice Court Judge John H. Sheffield ordered James Harper to serve six months in a work center for a conviction Harper already had appealed to a higher court, and for which Harper already had satisfied his sentence. Because under the facts of this case, Judge Sheffield's conduct was not due to an innocent mistake, it amounts to judicial misconduct. So we impose a public reprimand, a 120-day suspension without pay, and a $3, 000 fine, and assess all costs of the proceedings to Judge Sheffield.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. On June 11, 1996, James Harper was to appear before Judge John H. Sheffield in the Lee County Justice Court on charges of driving under the influence and having an expired inspection sticker. But Harper failed to appear, and Judge Sheffield issued a warrant for his arrest.

         ¶3. Harper's attorney contacted the justice court and set the matter for trial September 11, 1996. The trial went forward, and Judge Sheffield convicted Harper on both charges. Judge Sheffield then imposed a six-month suspended sentence and a $600 fine for the DUI and a $50 fine for the inspection sticker. That same day, Harper entered into a payment plan with the Lee County Justice Court for his $600 fine. Two days later, he paid $50, which was credited to the DUI case number.

         ¶4. On October 10, 1996, Harper appealed his DUI conviction to the County Court of Lee County. The county-court clerk notified the Lee County prosecutor, Harper's attorney, the Lee County Justice Court, and Judge Sheffield. The notice of appeal and the clerk's notification were placed in the justice-court case file. Harper then was convicted in county court on June 23, 1997, and he satisfied the terms of his sentence.

         ¶5. On April 9, 2013, Harper again was arrested for DUI in Lee County. At that point he was told he could not post bond until he resolved a matter with Judge Sheffield. The next day, Harper appeared before Judge Sheffield, who accused Harper of failing to pay the fines imposed for the 1996 justice-court convictions.

         ¶6. Despite Harper's protestation that he had appealed to county court, lost, and paid his fines-and despite the fact that Judge Sheffield had with him the justice-court case files for Harper's earlier convictions, both of which contained Harper's notice of appeal and the county-court notification-Judge Sheffield sentenced Harper to serve six months at the Lee County Work Center for the DUI conviction. Harper served four months in the work center before being released due to an infection requiring hospitalization.

         ¶7. On August 21, 2014, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance filed a complaint against Judge Sheffield. The Commission alleged that Judge Sheffield committed judicial misconduct by sentencing Harper to the work center when Harper had appealed his conviction to a higher court and had paid his fine. Following a hearing, the Commission recommends that this Court find that Judge Sheffield committed misconduct; impose a public reprimand, a 120-day suspension, and a $3, 000 fine; and assess the costs of the proceedings to Judge Sheffield. We accept the Commission's recommendation.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶8. The Mississippi Constitution grants this Court the power "[o]n recommendation of the commission on judicial performance, " to "remove from office, suspend, fine or publicly censure or reprimand any . . . judge of this state for . . . willful misconduct in office . . . or . . . conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute."[1] In a judicial-performance case, we conduct "an independent inquiry of the record before making a 'final determination of the appropriate action to be taken in each case[.]'"[2] While we give careful consideration to the Commission's findings of fact and recommendation, we are not bound by them.[3] To impose sanctions, we must find "'clear and convincing evidence of misconduct.'"[4]

         I. Judge Sheffield committed judicial misconduct.

         ¶9. The Commission recommends that Judge Sheffield's actions violated Canons 1, 2A, 3B(2), 3B(4), 3B(8), and 3C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct as well as Section 177A of the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. We agree.

         ¶10. The Constitution permits this Court to impose discipline for judicial misconduct which is willful, or which is "prejudicial to the administration of justice" and "brings the judicial office into disrepute."[5] "[N]egligence, ignorance, and incompetence are sufficient for a judge to behave in a manner prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the judicial office into disrepute."[6] Here, Judge Sheffield committed misconduct which at least amounted to negligence, ignorance, and incompetence.

         ¶11. When Harper appeared before Judge Sheffield in 2013, Judge Sheffield had with him the 1996 DUI case file. That record contained the notice of appeal to county court. Harper protested that he had appealed and that he had satisfied his sentence. But Judge Sheffield failed to recognize these simple facts, both articulated by Harper and sitting before him in documents on his bench.

         ¶12. Canon 1 of the Judicial Code of Conduct provides:

An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary will be preserved. The provisions of this Code should be construed and applied to further that objective.

         Judge Sheffield's failure to devote sufficient attention to the record before him did not represent the "high standards of conduct" required by Canon 1. Canon 2A provides that "[a] judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." Confidence in the integrity of the judiciary is not promoted when a judge fails to devote sufficient attention to the case before him that he cannot find a document in a record he has in his possession, and wrongfully sentences an individual to serve time in a work center because of his inattention.

         ¶13. Canon 3B(2) provides that "[a] judge shall be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in it." Judge Sheffield's conduct reflects anything but competence. And Canon 3B(4) states "Judges shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom they deal in their official capacities, and shall require similar conduct of lawyers, and of their staffs, court officials, and others subject to their direction and control." If Judge Sheffield's failure to find the notice of appeal were not enough, the testimony establishes that he was discourteous toward Harper in the face of Harper's attempt to point out Judge Sheffield's errors.

         ¶14. Canon 3B(8) provides that "[a] judge shall dispose of all judicial matters promptly, efficiently and fairly." Nothing about this proceeding was prompt, efficient, or fair. Finally, Canon 3C(1) provides "[a] judge shall diligently discharge the judge's administrative responsibilities without bias or prejudice and maintain professional competence in judicial administration, and shall cooperate with other judges and court officials in the administration of court business." Judge Sheffield did not "maintain professional competence in judicial administration."

         ¶15. So we accept the Commission's recommendation that Judge Sheffield's actions violated Canons 1, 2A, 3B(2), 3B(4), 3B(8), and 3C(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

         II. The Sanction to be Imposed

         ¶16. "The sanctions in judicial-misconduct cases should be proportionate to the judge's offense."[7] To determine the appropriateness of ...


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