Tax dollars to fight judicial misconduct? Retired judges say there are better alternatives

”It’s easy to spend other people’s money, especially when they think it’s a bottomless pit.”
Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 5:15 PM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - When a judge is accused of wrongdoing, taxpayers are often left footing the bill for their defense.

The city of Cleveland has spent more than $1 million fighting for two municipal court judges who faced discipline for abusing their power.

But is spending that kind of cash really necessary?

“We basically have provided judges who find themselves in trouble an open checkbook and blank checks,” said Ronald Adrine, who retired in 2018 as the administrative and presiding judge of Cleveland Municipal Court.

In October, former Cleveland Municipal Court Judge Pinkey Carr was suspended by the Ohio Supreme Court over her “unprecedented misconduct” and removed from the bench.

Carr admitted to committing multiple ethics violations and abusing her power, and resigned from her position as judge on December 9.

By that point, however, records show the city had already paid more than $100,000 to an outside law firm to defend Carr in her disciplinary case.

An attorney with Koblentz, Pevose & Froning, LLC confirmed to 19 News they have been paid over $138,000 since being hired in 2021 to represent the now-former judge.

Copies of legal bills obtained by 19 News show the firm billed the city at a rate of $275 per hour.

What the city has spent to defend Carr’s actions is just a fraction of the more than $1.2 million paid to outside firms in the failed defense of Angela Stokes, who also resigned from the bench after losing her disciplinary case.

“It’s easy to spend other people’s money, especially when they think it’s a bottomless pit,” said Adrine.

Adrine, who served 36 years on the bench, believes there are better options than having the city simply provide an open checkbook to judges accused of misconduct.

City records show Cleveland’s law department had a budget of $7,368,330 for 2022, including cash to pay for 61 in-house attorneys.

So why are city attorneys not being used to represent city judges when they face discipline?

“I don’t have an answer for you,” said Adrine. “I’m not sure what the rationale is.”

According to Mayor Justin Bibb’s office, some city employees are entitled to a defense depending upon the nature of the claims, the employee’s position, and in some cases whether it is provided for in a collective bargaining agreement or under related employment law.

“It is not clear that the city had an obligation under state law or city charter to provide for outside counsel, however, this had been the past practice,” a spokesperson told 19 News.

The mayor’s office told us they are looking closer at the issue, and that it was the decision of the former mayor, Frank Jackson, to hire outside counsel to defend Carr, which they believed was “based on staying consistent with precedent and past practice.”

The city said Jackson’s decision also came at a time when there was a “capacity issue” in the law department.

“Due to a variety of issues, the Law Department did not have sufficient attorneys to litigate Judge Carr’s case at the level that was required,” press secretary Marie Zickefoose said in an email. “Using the Law Department would have been offset by needing to hire outside counsel in other cases.”

“I think the city needs to step back and do an agonizing reappraisal of what the most effective way to provide defense to a sitting judge is,” said Adrine.

His solution to a judge requesting outside counsel for a disciplinary case is have the judge pay up front. If they are exonerated, the city would simply reimburse those expenses.

“I think that would be the most effective way to make sure that there’s not an open checkbook,” he said.

Former Cleveland Municipal Court judge C. Ellen Connally agreed with Adrine and was adamant in an interview that change was long overdue.

Connally said she is hopeful the new administration would consider changing the ‘blank check’ policy for the sake of taxpayers, and that the results would ultimately change the way judges react when charges are brought.

If a judge fronts the cost of their own defense and can only reimburse if found not guilty, Connally said it is a big incentive for those who are guilty to admit wrongdoing.

Carr, whose license to practice law has been suspended indefinitely, could also case criminal charges for her courtroom behavior.

The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office has appointed the Special Prosecutions Section of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to review Carr’s case for any potential crimes.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office confirmed the review is still ongoing.

19 News reached out to Carr for comment but she has yet to respond.