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Mississippi Commission On Judicial Performance v. Burton

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

April 25, 2019

MISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE
v.
JUDGE JESSE BURTON

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/23/2018

          MISSISSIPPI COMMISSION ON JUDICIAL PERFORMANCE. HON. KENT McDANIEL.

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

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE: RICHARD B. LEWIS

          MAXWELL, JUSTICE.

         ¶1. On July 17, 2017, Jesse Burton-a justice court judge for the Southern District of Coahoma County-filed an affidavit claiming his former girlfriend had stolen money and personal property from him. Based on this affidavit, another justice court judge issued an arrest warrant for Judge Burton's girlfriend, Regina Burt. But before the warrant was served, Judge Burton changed his mind and instructed the clerk's office to rescind the warrant that the other judge had issued. As directed, the deputy clerk replaced Judge Burton's girlfriend's name on the warrant with Jane Doe and instructed the sheriff's office not to execute it.

         ¶2. Acting on a complaint from Burt, on August 29, 2018, the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance filed a formal complaint against Judge Burton, who cooperated and entered an agreed stipulation of facts with the Commission. The parties' agreement included the Commission's recommended sanction of a public reprimand and $500 fine. After review, this Court agrees with the Commission's findings and recommended sanction.

         Background Facts and Procedural History

         ¶3. As part of the stipulation of agreed facts, which included a proposed sanction, Judge Burton agreed he committed misconduct when he ordered a deputy clerk to rescind his former girlfriend's arrest warrant. He agreed he violated Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(1), 3B(2), and 3E(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi and Mississippi Code Section 97-11-1. This was Judge Burton's first disciplinary matter before the Commission in his twenty-seven-year career as a justice court judge. And the Commission recommended he be publicly reprimanded and fined $500. After a hearing, the Commission adopted the agreed stipulation of facts and recommended sanction in a five-to-one vote. The Commission and Judge Burton filed a joint motion, asking this Court accept the Commission's findings and recommended sanctions.

         Discussion

         ¶4. Mississippi Constitution article 6, section 177A, vests this Court with the power to, on the recommendation of the Commission on Judicial Performance, "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 that brings the judicial office into disrepute. Miss. Const. art. 6, § 177A; see also Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Vess, 227 So.3d 952, 956 (Miss. 2017). As the ultimate decision-maker in judicial performance cases, we conduct an independent review of the record. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Thompson, 80 So.3d 86, 88 (Miss. 2012). While we carefully consider the Commission's findings and recommendations, we are not bound by them and may impose lesser or more severe sanctions. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Osborne, 16 So.3d 16, 19 (Miss. 2009). This is true even when the Commission and judge enter into a joint recommendation. Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Sanford, 941 So.2d 209, 217-18 (Miss. 2006). In short, our task is to determine if the judge committed misconduct and, if so, to decide on an appropriate sanction.

         I. Misconduct

         ¶5. Judge Burton acknowledged and agreed that rescinding an arrest warrant, signed by another judge in a matter in which he was a party, prejudiced the administration of justice and brought the judicial office into disrepute. And he acknowledged and agreed that his actions violated Canons 1, 2A, 2B, 3B(1), 3B(2), and 3E(1) of the Code of Judicial Conduct of Mississippi and Mississippi Code Section 97-11-1.[1]

         ¶6. This Court has found willful misconduct when a judge interfered in matters before another judge. See Thompson, 80 So.3d at 92. Willful misconduct may also exist when a judge has a clear conflict of interest, but still remains involved in the case. See Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Bowen, 123 So.3d 381, 384-85 (Miss. 2013); see also Miss. Comm'n on Judicial Performance v. Hartzog, 32 So.3d 1188, 1193-94 (Miss. 2010).

         ¶7. Judge Burton interfered with an arrest warrant that another judge had issued. Judge Burton was also a party in that matter. Both he and the Commission agreed his willful misconduct prejudiced the administration of justice and brought the ...


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