Let’s say there is a judge in a court somewhere out there in flyover country. Let’s say it’s the Cleveland Municipal Court. Let’s call our judge Angela Stokes. And let’s say that for the 18 years she’s been on the bench, everybody, including her court staff, thought she was, well, nuts.
And let’s say that Supreme Court of Ohio’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline has issued an opinion requiring our Judge Stokes to undergo psychiatric evaluation because they conclude in a 49 page report that she may be “suffering from a mental illness that substantially impairs her ability to perform her duties as a judicial officer.”
What do you do with such a judge?
From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
The complaint does not force Stokes to step down. It represents the first step in the Ohio Supreme Court’s process of evaluating the judge for discipline.
Even a cop who makes a questionable shoot is taken off the streets pending the outcome of an investigation. It may not be much, and it may just be window-dressing to keep the public from marching on the police station with torches and pitchforks (maybe), but they do not hand his gun back and tell him, go forth and shoot at will.
Yet Judge Angela Stokes will take her bench this morning as if nothing happened. She will do whatever judge-y things she wants to do and, when the mood strikes, issue orders that will affect people’s lives. She may even ruin a few today. Even though she may be nuts.
The 49-page complaint states that Stokes abuses court resources, abuses lawyers and court staff and defendants who appear before her.
The Plain Dealer has previously documented the same complaints about Stokes and written columns about her, including one that noted the Disciplinary Counsel was tracking her.
Notably, the complaint does not allege that her decisions are wrong and incompetent, a detail carefully omitted so that it doesn’t open a hole through which every past aggrieved litigant can rush. Yet it’s implicit in the complaint that if she’s insane in everything she does, she’s insane in her determinations as well.
There is an appellate court, of course, which exists to correct the errors of an inferior court, but appellate courts rely on the judge below not being insane when making credibility determinations and findings of fact. They are required to give certain credit to the court below, and as long as it comports with the ruling the appellate court wishes to issue, they do.
The presumption of regularity, that everything that happened below happened in the normal and expected way, covers an assortment of ills. In the case of Judge Stokes, did it ignore her mental state?
There are some very hard questions here that need to be asked. How is it possible, given the problems Judge Stokes caused going back to the beginning of her tenure on the bench, that it took 18 years before anybody thought it bad enough to be worthy of address?
The complaint says that since Stokes took the bench in 1995, she has consumed a disproportionate amount of the court’s human and material resources “due to her inability to administer her docket in a timely manner, her lack of organization, and her unreasonable expectation that all court employees be at her beck and call.”
Among the complaint’s findings: Stokes employed 21 different personal bailiffs at 27 different times since 1995, a point made by the Plain Dealer in a 2009 story.
Yet, the “issues” raised about Judge Stokes all seem largely peripheral. So she was slow? She used a disproportionate amount of resources? Meh. Maybe she was just far more thorough than other judges, and maybe the condemnation should be for other judges rushing through their dockets, not taking the time to fully appreciate each case, each defendant, each issue.
And so what if she had 21 bailiffs since 1995? We’re all familiar with the fine civil servants who fill the administrative positions in courthouses. To be nice about it, they aren’t all fabulously helpful folks. There are a lot of lawyers who would see this as perhaps the sanest thing a judge could do. And no, this isn’t a slam against bailiffs, under whatever name they’re called in various courts, but that they aren’t all charming and brilliant. Sometimes, they’re surly and unhelpful. Just sayin’.
So is Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Angela Stokes nuts or not? If she is, why did it take 18 years before anybody got up the guts to call her on it? If she is, why is she still on the bench dispensing insanity? If she is, why not address her rulings, the things that make someone a good judge or not? If she is, why just dicker around the edges, quibbling with details that make her sound more like a noncompliant bureaucrat than a bad judge?
Is Judge Stokes nuts? Who knows? The lawyers who appear before her might have stories of her craziness, maybe about her finding facts that no one ever alleged, or reaching conclusions that no sane person could ever reach. If so, let’s hear them. There may be tons of such stories, so let them out.
But you can’t do what’s been done here. By raising the specter that she’s mentally ill, you’ve ruined her as a judge. By leaving her on the bench after reaching the conclusion that she needs to be evaluated for mental illness, you’ve either undermined your point or you’ve shown yourself to be a gutless wonder. And by waiting 18 years to deal with what, apparently, has been documented problems, you’ve demonstrated the inability to manage a court system.
Regardless of the outcome of this fiasco, the Cleveland court system, and Ohio Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, has disgraced itself. Judge Stokes may be nuts, but your handling of it is incompetent. Way to go. Anybody want to guess why the public may not hold the judiciary in the high esteem it desires?