Judge lacks First Amendment right to insult litigants

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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A judge has no First Amendment right to belittle and berate litigants in her courtroom, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in ordering that a state district judge be suspended for five days without pay.

Numerous complaints had been filed against Judith Raub Eiler, a King County district judge since 1992. The complaints centered on her treatment of pro se litigants (individuals who represent themselves without the services of an attorney). The bulk of Eiler’s caseload consisted of traffic offenses.

The Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigated numerous complaints about Eiler’s treatment of litigants in 2008. The commission identified 15 cases of misconduct by Eiler and determined that she had violated several canons of judicial ethics. Among them: that judges should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary, should avoid the appearance of impropriety, should be polite and forbearing during judicial proceedings and should give each person a full hearing.

Canon 3(A)(3) of the Washington Code of Judicial Conduct says that “judges should be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and others with whom judges deal in their official capacity.”

Eiler’s objectionable conduct consisted mainly of caustic and intemperate remarks to litigants in her courtroom. She said to one litigant: “We don’t troll for stupid people out of state who speed over the speed limit that they think it is.”

To another she said: “If you drive like an idiot cause you’re late for work, you’re gonna have to pay for it,” adding, “You can see your picture on the headlines of the Seattle Times, stupid young man who shouldn’t be driving.”

And in a case involving a father and son, Eiler said to the father when he answered instead of his son: “He’s not a puppet, you don’t get to make his mouth move. I’m asking him the question.”

The commission concluded that the cases showed a pattern of misconduct and recommended a suspension of 90 days without pay. Eiler had been reprimanded for similar conduct in 2005.

Eiler appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. One of her arguments on appeal was that the First Amendment protected her statements in her courtroom.

The state supreme court rejected this First Amendment defense in its Aug. 5 opinion in In the Matter of Eiler, writing that “judges do not have a right to use rude, demeaning, and condescending speech toward litigants.”

The high court concluded that Eiler’s conduct clearly violated Canon 3(A)(3) because she showed of pattern of impatience and discourtesy to litigants. However, the court found that her pattern of behavior did not violate the other canons regarding the integrity of the judiciary and avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

Because it found that Eiler had violated only one judicial canon, the court reduced her punishment to the five-day unpaid suspension.

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