On Monday, June 17, 2024, ProPublica reported that the North Carolina Supreme Court had declined to issue public reprimands against two Republican judges, despite recommendations of discipline from the state’s Judicial Standards Commission.

According to unnamed sources familiar with the decisions, the cases involved Judges Lori Hamilton and Caroline Burnette. Judge Hamilton had ordered the incarceration of a witness without legal cause during a 2021 trial. Meanwhile, Judge Burnette had engaged in a shouting match with a defendant in her courtroom later that same year, an altercation that escalated when the defendant rushed the bench and was fatally shot by a police officer.

Both judges admitted to violating portions of the state’s judicial conduct code during investigations by the nonpartisan Judicial Standards Commission. For minor violations, the commission typically issues private letters or warnings. However, for Judge Hamilton and Judge Burnette’s admitted misconduct, the commission recommended the more serious sanction of public reprimands.

The sources said the Supreme Court, composed of a Republican majority, rejected the discipline recommendations in closed-door decisions last fall without public explanation. This marked an unusual departure from the court’s practices over the last decade, during which it had always followed the commission’s guidance on cases referred for judicial punishment.

The secretive handling of the cases stands out against North Carolina’s status as one of the most opaque states for judicial discipline. Unlike over half of other states, the state does not make such proceedings public until the last possible stage. Experts say this lack of transparency enables wrongdoing to be concealed.

The decisions come as political tensions escalate within the state’s judiciary. Last year, the commission investigated Democratic Justice Anita Earls over alleged disclosure of confidential court information, which she denied and characterized as retaliation for her criticism of insufficient diversity efforts. Meanwhile, the commission previously only privately warned the now-Chief Justice Paul Newby despite his own remarks sharply criticizing Earls.

Some observers argue that secrecy and accusations of bias are undermining faith in the impartiality and independence of North Carolina’s courts. Resolving partisan disputes and reforming disciplinary opacity, they say, are urgently needed to restore trust in the judicial system. As political divisions continue intensifying nationwide, the integrity of impartial justice hangs in the balance.

 

 

Source: ProPublica