On Friday, June 23, 2023, the Nebraska Commission on Judicial Qualifications publicly reprimanded Michael P. Burns, judge of the County Court, 10th Judicial District, for engaging in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

The case is entitled “In the Matter of Michael P. Burns,” with case no. S-23-0469.

The charges cited the Nebraska Code of Judicial Conduct 5-301.2, 5-301.3, 5-302.1, 5-302.12 which states:

Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary. A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.

Avoiding Abuse of the Prestige of Judicial Office. A judge shall not abuse the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so.

Giving Precedence to the Duties of Judicial Office. The duties of judicial office, as prescribed by law, shall take precedence over aII of a judge’s personal and extrajudicial activities.

A judge shall require court staff, court officials, and others subject to the judge’s direction and control to act in a manner consistent with the judge’s obligations under this Code.

The reprimand is a result of Judge Burns’ improper conduct in a case involving a friend and parish priest who was charged with a misdemeanor offense. During a break from his judicial duties, Judge Burns received a message about the charge and initiated communications with the County Attorney and the defendant, using his judicial position and contacts. He failed to disclose his conflict of interest and engaged in conduct that brought disrepute to the judiciary, violating several provisions of the Nebraska Code of Judicial Conduct. Judge Burns reported his own conduct, expressed remorse, and cooperated with the JQC, leading to the issuance of a public reprimand.

The filing states:

“Judge Burns then initiated a phone call to the County Attorney who had filed the charge, in which he explained his relationship with the defendant and his belief that there must be a mistake. He asked if further investigation might be warranted before proceeding, and provided the defendant’s phone number to pass along to law enforcement.”

The filing continues:

“Although Judge Burns reassured the Clerk Magistrate that her own inquiry to him was correct, his response to her inquiry was not. He failed to instruct her that he had a conflict of interest and could not take any action. He should have declined to take any action. Although Judge Burns intended to defer to the County Attorney’s judgment, his initiation and continuation of communication with the prosecutor were improper. Although Judge Burns reasoned he was helping his parish priest avoid. the public embarrassment of an unjust minor criminal charge, he was only able to do so by virtue of his judicial position, using knowledge and contacts afforded to him as a judge.”

According to the commission, Judge Burns’ misconduct caused confusion and concern among his colleagues regarding their own obligations and created incorrect impressions about the handling of the case. Regardless of his good intentions and personal confidence in the defendant’s innocence, a judge must not underestimate the impact of his actions on those under his authority. Judge Burns had no prior disciplinary history, expressed remorse, acknowledged the unintended consequences of his misconduct, immediately reported his conduct, and fully cooperated with the JQC, which resulted in a reprimand as the appropriate disciplinary action.

The Disposition states:

“Pursuant to the authority granted in Article V of the Nebraska Constitution and Neb. Rev. Stat. S 24-715 et. seq., and following waiver of formal hearing, the Nebraska Commission on Judicial Qualifications (JQC) hereby issues this Public Reprimand of Judge Michael P. Burns. Its publication is intended to address the specific conduct of the subject judge and to instruct the judiciary concerning similar circumstances.”

Judge Burns attended the Creighton University School of Law, graduating in 1992.

Judge Burns’s courtroom is located at District 10, Amanda Bauer, Adams, 500 West 4th Street, Hastings, Nebraska 68901, and can be reached at 402-461-7264. His info can be found on ballotpedia.org.

A copy of the original filing can be found here.