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Misconduct on the Bench

Mike Hall

In the American courtroom, all stand equal before the sword of justice -- except for one man. The judge sits on a raised bench, serving as a god to the humble pleaders.

The deification of the American judge allows the unethical a great opportunity to cheat the system. Like sweatshop owners exploiting poor workers, these corrupt judges know they can exploit the system with impunity.

For one jurisdiction, however, the sword’s tip now points at the black-robed gods. In New Hampshire, Chief Justice David A. Brock was impeached by the state’s house of representatives for attempting to fix the outcome of trials concerning his friends. As the state’s senate convenes to determine Brock’s fate, it is high time for him and his cronies to start to sweat.

Brock’s downfall began in 1998, when Associate Justice W. Stephen Thayer and his wife Judith filed for divorce. Proceedings were proceeding normally until Thayer delayed reporting a series of debts to his wife until after the deadline for judges to file financial disclosure statements. The series of loans included a $50,000 loan from a close friend. Facing a reprimand for violating financial disclosure regulations, Thayer dug a deeper hole for himself by attempting to influence court cases for the same friend.

While he was cleared of wrongdoing following a government investigation, Thayer’s influence would only lead to greater judicial impropriety. In February, Judith Thayer appealed the divorce to New Hampshire’s high court. Since all of the eligible judges knew Thayer, every judge justifiably recused himself, leaving no one to hear the trial. At a court meeting, Brock told the judges that he would appoint two replacements. Abandoning all pretense of ethical conduct, Thayer immediately objected to one choice, former Superior Court Judge George Pappagianis, saying, “Oh no, don’t do that. Not Pappagianis,” according to the Associated Press. Brock attempted to help his friend by telling the court clerk to not call Pappagianis. Stunned by Brock’s request, the clerk said that he had already sent out the summons beforehand, then wrote a memorandum to the court detailing the infraction. The state launched its investigation days afterward.

After learning of the investigation, Thayer approached Brock and said, “I’m not hanging alone,” according to the Associated Press. Thayer’s foresight was glitteringly accurate. After resigning from the court in March, Thayer received a reprieve from state Attorney General Philip McLaughlin when he announced that Thayer would not be prosecuted.

This cleared the way for a full assault on Brock, who by this point had assumed an aggressive position and hired counsel to begin his defense. Regardless of his valiant effort to defend his trial rigging, Brock was impeached by the house in July. The senate is now conducting the sentencing hearing, considering the Thayer infraction as well as his own influence in a case involving a state senator and his practice of allowing recused judges to review and influence court opinions.

The seediness of the New Hampshire court typifies the modern-day disillusionment with local judicial systems. From lazy public defenders in Texas to chronically absent judges in Pennsylvania, our judicial systems today are rife with incompetence and corruption. Our overly litigious society shares the blame as our drive to “prosecute thy neighbor” necessitated the creation of hundreds of new courts and judicial offices.

The ultimate fault, however, rests with the system that allowed Brock and Thayer to sit at the bench. As in New Hampshire, judges across the country are appointed today for their politics rather than their ability, resulting in the current glut of unethical judges with inferior legal training. This diseases pervades our system from the municipality to the state and federal levels, up to the point that many voters this election year will not vote for a president, but for the four U.S. Supreme Court justices that the next president will appoint. While the judicial selection process can never run fully independent of politics, our leaders must make an effort to nominate the most qualified candidates regardless of political preference. We can help this effort by encouraging our leaders to end popular election of judges in all states and to create independent panels for nominations to vacant positions. Policies like this would have prevented Granite Staters from lying prone under false gods like Brock and Thayer.