On Friday, November 3, 2023, Louisville Public Media reported that Jefferson County District Court Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke was accused of violating judicial ethics in a June 2021 traffic case.
According to the report, on June 3, 2021, 18-year-old Christopher Blackford was caught speeding at over 25 mph over the limit by Louisville Metro Police on Blanton Lane. Blackford’s attorney, Christophe Stewart, had arranged a plea deal with prosecutors whereby Blackford would plead guilty to a speeding offense in exchange for dropping an additional reckless driving charge. However, when the case was heard in Judge Burke’s courtroom, she unilaterally modified the terms of the plea agreement without input from prosecutors.
Specifically, Judge Burke lowered the speeding charge Blackford faced to a level that avoided possible license suspension. She then dismissed the reckless driving charge while imposing a $184 fine and court costs. The Jefferson County Attorney’s office appealed Judge Burke’s ruling, arguing she had violated protocol and judicial ethics rules by engaging in illegal secret communications with only the defense attorney present, excluding prosecutors from the revised plea discussions.
In August 2023, the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed with the appeal, harshly ruling that Judge Burke “clearly violated” Kentucky’s Code of Judicial Conduct through her ex-parte actions. The Court of Appeals also found Blackford’s defense attorney, Christophe Stewart, had breached his duties under legal ethics guidelines through the same prohibited ex-parte discussions without all parties privy.
Adding to the accusations against Judge Burke, the ruling noted this was an ongoing pattern of behavior despite a previous 2015 reprimand from the Kentucky Supreme Court concerning ex-parte proceedings in another case while presiding from the same Jefferson District Court. Legal experts stated it was exceedingly rare for the Court of Appeals to use such blunt language, but the judges appeared to want to send a strong message given Judge Burke’s history of this conduct.
While no formal charges had yet been brought against either the judge or lawyer as of the media report, the Court of Appeals decision emphasized rules must be followed and due process granted to both sides regardless of case size or complexity to maintain impartiality and public trust in the judicial system.
Source: Louisville Public Media