Among the inherent powers of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is the power to regulate the officers of its courts. As the court explained in Board of Overseers of the Bar v. Lee, “each of the three co-equal branches of government has, without any express grant, the inherent right to accomplish all objects necessarily within the orbit of that department when not expressly allocated to, or limited by the existence of a similar power in, one of the other departments.” It is not surprising that the Supreme Judicial Court has for many years regulated, through formal disciplinary proceedings, the conduct of attorneys who practice in its courts. The power of the court to do so has been constitutionally established and legislatively recognized, and is necessary to ensure that attorneys will remain accountable for their conduct. What is perhaps surprising is that the court's judges, who “[p]lainly ... are even more significant officers of the court than are lawyers,” have only for the past decade been monitored by a permanent investigatory body similar to that which monitors the conduct of the state's attorneys. Through the adoption of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the establishment of the Committee on Judicial Responsibility, the Supreme Judicial Court told the public that judges, like other officers of the court, would be subject to the court's regulatory authority. In an early judicial discipline opinion, the court emphasized that “it is essential for the efficient provision of even-handed justice for the people of Maine that this court have the power to sanction judges who violate the Code of Judicial Conduct.” Furthermore, the need for judges to act in a way that commands the public's respect cannot be limited to a judge's role as a decider of cases and controversies. Judges conduct a court's affairs under the supposition that those before them should respect minimum standards of tolerable conduct—laws established by either a legislature or common-law jurisprudence. Given their authority to pass judgment on others, judges should themselves respect the highest standards of conduct. Although the people cannot expect their judges to be beyond fault, in order to earn the public trust judges must be accountable for all their actions. When contemplating an example of judicial “impropriety,” one might initially consider a serious and obvious violation of the law or a flagrant abuse of the judicial office. Perhaps less obvious is an instance where the judge, though neither engaging in illegal acts outside the courtroom nor seriously misapplying the law within it, demeans jurors with racial insults or unfairly berates an attorney in the judge's chambers. Clearly, a misapplication of the law might affect an unjust result in a case, and similarly, the impropriety of failing to meet high standards of judicial demeanor can severely weaken the confidence people place in the judiciary. Calling on judges to maintain the highest standards of conduct and to avoid appearances of impropriety, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have adopted rules governing judicial conduct. This Note will discuss the judiciary's efforts to ensure that its judges preserve the respect of the people by remaining accountable for their actions. The Note will examine rules which reduce to writing unwritten norms of judicial conduct, such as the ABA's Model Code of Judicial Conduct, with particular attention to the rules that govern judicial demeanor. All rules, of course, need mechanisms through which they can be enforced. Accordingly, Maine's Committee on Judicial Responsibility and Disability will be reviewed as an example of a state judicial-conduct organization charged with enforcing its version of the Code. Having been charged with this responsibility, the Committee investigates and, when appropriate, refers disciplinary matters to the courts. The law of judicial discipline as it has developed in Maine will be discussed, and this Note will show how the court's most recent decision, Matter of Hart, significantly departs from previous cases in its unwillingness to recognize the need to ensure that judges remain ultimately accountable to the people.
Harold T. Kelly Jr.,
Hart Failure: The Supreme Judicial Court's Interpretation of Nonjudicial Demeanor,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol44/iss1/7