Presiding Judge, 16th Judicial Circuit
Presiding Judge, 9th Judicial Circuit
Scott Land Company, Inc.
Judge, Court of Civil Appeals
Masada Resource Group
Assistant Executive Director
401 Adams Avenue
P.0. Box 303400
Montgomery, AL 36130-3400
Phone (334) 242-4089
Fax (334) 353-4043
The Alabama Supreme Court formulated, established, and, on December 15, 1975, adopted the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics “as a code for judges and a declaration of that which the people of the State of Alabama have a right to expect of them.” Preamble, Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics.
Alabama, like each of the 49 other states and the District of Columbia, has a judicial-conduct system that is the primary means by which ethical standards for and other conduct of judges are regulated. These judicial-conduct systems were instituted to ensure the integrity, independence, and impartiality of judges and the judicial system by
enforcing standards of judicial conduct on and off the bench;
assisting the judiciary in maintaining the necessary balance between independence and accountability;
providing an accessible forum for citizens’ complaints against judges;
creating a greater public awareness of what constitutes proper and improper judicial conduct; and
protecting judges from false, unfounded, and inaccurate accusations.
Alabama’s judicial-conduct system was established, in 1973, by the overwhelming support of the citizens of Alabama when, by nearly a two-to-one vote, Alabama adopted Amendment No. 328 to the Alabama Constitution (now §§ 139-162, Ala. Const. 1901 (Off. Recomp.)). Alabama’s two-tier judicial-conduct system consists of the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Court of the Judiciary. §§ 156 & 157, Ala. Const. 1901 (Off. Recomp.). The Judicial Inquiry Commission is convened permanently as an independent agency within the judicial branch of government with authority to
initiate or receive complaints filed by any aggrieved person concerning any alleged violation by a judge of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics, misconduct in judicial office, failure to perform judicial duties, or inability to perform judicial duties because of a physical or mental disability;
conduct confidential investigations of allegations asserted in complaints filed with it;
file charges in the Court of the Judiciary upon the finding by a majority of the Judicial Inquiry Commission that a reasonable basis exists to charge an Alabama judge with a violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, misconduct in office, failure to perform judicial duties, or inability to perform judicial duties because of a physical or mental disability; and
prosecute charges the Commission files in the Court of the Judiciary (which, by rule of the Court of the Judiciary, the Commission is required to prove by clear and convincing evidence) and defend any appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court from the decision of the Court of Judiciary.
The Commission does not adjudicate complaints. The Commission does not hold formal hearings, and it cannot impose discipline on judges. When it proceeds with a preliminary investigation, it acts not as a prosecutor to prove a case, but as an impartial investigator, sensitive to the rights of the judge, the complainant, and the public. Every investigation affords the judge opportunities to respond to the allegations and to present argument and evidence, as the judge deems appropriate.
The Commission does not act as an appellate court. It cannot reverse, vacate, or otherwise modify any judicial decision. It does not review allegations of legal error or of abuse of judicial discretion, absent evidence of intentionally or consistently ignoring the law, evidence of abuse of judicial power, or other evidence of bad faith.
Article VI, § 156(b), of the Alabama Constitution, mandates that all proceedings of the Judicial Inquiry Commission shall be confidential except the fact that a complaint has been filed with the Court of the Judiciary. This mandate for confidentiality during an investigation exists in the judicial-conduct systems in all states. Alabama’s confidentiality has been further defined by the Alabama Supreme Court in the Rules of Procedure of the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Although the Judicial Inquiry Commission and its staff maintain strict confidentiality, the Commission has no authority to limit the speech of complainants, witnesses, or any judge involved in any complaint or investigation.
Pursuant to Article VI, § 156(c), the Alabama Supreme Court has adopted rules governing the procedures of the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Some key provisions include the following: Any complaint filed must be verified by the complainant (Rule 6.A); upon opening a confidential investigation, the Commission must serve upon the judge the complaint and a notice setting forth the nature of the allegations being investigated (Rule 6.C); every six weeks, the Commission must serve upon the judge any materials collected during the investigation (Rule 6.D); the Commission must serve upon the judge any subpoena, which is issued by the Commission, prior to or simultaneously with service of the subpoena on the person or entity being subpoenaed (Rule 7.C); and the confidentiality exception set out above (Rule 5.A). In addition, Rule 18 gives the Commission discretion to render advisory opinions relating to judicial ethics to judges upon request. (The Commission has issued 930 advisory opinions as of October 5, 2016.)
Pursuant to Article VI, § 156(a), the Judicial Inquiry Commission consists of nine members: a judge of an intermediate appellate court, appointed by the Alabama Supreme Court; three persons who are not lawyers or judges and a district judge, appointed by the Governor and subject to confirmation by the Alabama Senate; two circuit judges, appointed by the Alabama Circuit Judges’ Association; and two members of the Alabama State Bar, appointed by the Commissioners of the Alabama State Bar. Thus, seven commissioners are appointed by elected Alabama officials, with four of those commissioners also being confirmed by the Alabama Senate. The composition of the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the mechanism of appointment of its members by various public, elected officials and entities are very similar to all but a few of the 51 judicial-conduct systems in the United States.
During fiscal year 2016, the Judicial Inquiry Commission received 204 complaints against Alabama judges. In addition, during fiscal year 2016:
152 complaints were dismissed, without investigation, each dismissal based on one or more of the following findings by the Commission: The allegations did not present an ethical violation; the allegations did not present a reasonable basis on which to charge; and/or the allegations were beyond the Commission’s jurisdiction because, in effect, they presented legal issues not implicating ethical misconduct.
38 complaints were investigated by the Commission, and the Commission subsequently dismissed those complaints or filed charges in the Court of the Judiciary. 17 complaints were carried over to fiscal year 2017.
The Commission met with two judges about complaints filed against those judges, and the Commission subsequently dismissed those complaints.
The Commission filed charges in the Court of the Judiciary against five judges. The Court publicly censured one judge; suspended two judges for 180 days without pay; and ordered one judge to immediately retire and never again seek judicial office. The Court also suspended a judge without pay for the remainder of his term.
In the 42 years since its inception in 1973, the Commission has filed 48 complaints prior to fiscal year 2017.
JIC Opinions are available on the Alabama State Bar website (JIC Opinions)