Justice Denied

One issue that our state legislature will address this coming year is the Court of the Judiciary, the legislatively-created body that evaluates complaints against state judges.  Legislative hearings over the Fall have convinced many that the system does not work and that judges who control the Court of the Judiciary protect their own to the detriment of the people.  Last week, while attending a continuing legal education seminar, I ran across a great example of the problem.

The situation was a denial of justice to the litigants and, in my opinion, it was greeted with pretty much a shrug by the Court of the Judiciary.

It was a denial of justice because it violated a legal maxim to the effect that justice delayed is justice denied.  For the sake of brevity, let me quote one explanation of that maxim:

Justice is something meant to be handled at the present moment. This is so because, like Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”Therefore if someone delays something as important as justice knowing that injustice is a threat to it, then the person is denying justice.If it was important to the person, then they would’ve handled the situation right then, but since they delayed it, that means it’s not an important issue to them. (emphasis added)

So what happened?

Judge F. Lee Russell of Shelbyville conducted a trial on November 12, 1999.  In other words, there was no jury; the judge was literally serving as “judge and jury.”  The decision was his to make.  And, as not unusual, he took the matter under advisement, giving himself some time to reflect upon the evidence and the law so that a thoughtful decision would be rendered.

But time dragged on.  It was only in response to a motion by one of the parties to determine the status of the court’s not-yet-rendered decision that the judge promised he would rule on September 4, 2009.  We’re talking about a lapse of ten years!  But that date came and went.

Finally, after another year, on October 12, 2010, the judge ruled. We’re talking about it taking only one month shy of eleven years for the parties to get justice! Eleven years!

I would bet that if Judge Russell were waiting on a decision by a fellow judge on a matter of such import that it resulted in litigation he was involved in, he’d be fuming.  In my humble opinion, this judge should be impeached by our legislature.

But here’s what makes it even more outrageous in my mind.  Lawyers who ignore their clients have their licenses suspended and some are disbarred by the Board of Professional Responsibility, a different group that governs the ethical conduct of practicing lawyers.  Suspensions and disbarment can result in substantial economic losses as clients go elsewhere and the attorney is left without his or her usual means of support.

But what did the Court of the Judiciary do to its colleague who was grossly derelict in his duty?  He got a “reprimand.”

Let’s hope that the Court of the Judiciary gets a meaningful “reprimand” from our legislature who, we can hope, will not tolerate justices denying justice to the people.