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State Senator Tries to Help Superior Court Judge Escape Further Discipline

North Carolina State Senator Bill Cook filed the bill to help Judge Jerry Tillett, who was publicly reprimanded by the state's Judicial Standards Commission and now faces sanctions from the State Bar.

Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills, N.C.: Photo by Steve Petrucelli (Flickr)

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett is facing sanctions from the North Carolina State Bar.  Tillett, who is the Chief Resident Superior Court Judge in the twenty-county First Division in the northeast corner of the state, received a public reprimand from the Judicial Standards Commission in 2013 for misusing his power in disputes with several Dare County government officials.

Tillett’s troubles began when his son was detained by the Kill Devil Hills Police Department (“KDHPD”) in April 2010.  Tillett called a meeting with police and town officials in his chambers soon after the arrest.  The meeting turned confrontational after Tillett brought up other complaints that had been made against KDHPD.

Tillett continued to receive complaints about various local government officials through 2011, particularly against KDHPD Chief Gary Britt, Kill Devil Hills Assistant Town Manager Shawn Murphy, and District Attorney Frank Parrish.  The Judicial Standards Commission found that Tillett “engaged in overly aggressive behavior addressing these complaints,” going so far as improperly attempting to remove Britt from office and threatening Parrish with arrest when he refused to help.

Tillett’s conduct was a “misuse of the powers of his judicial office” and “brought the judiciary into disrepute and threatened public faith and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

North Carolina judges are disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission.  They are typically held to higher standards than other attorneys, due to their unique role and the nature of their duties.  The Judicial Standards Commission was established to consider complaints against state district, superior, and appellate court judges.  The Commission is also able to make recommendations for discipline against judges.  Once the Commission has received a written complaint from a citizen concerned with the conduct of a judge, an investigation takes place.  After the investigation, the judge is given a due process hearing where the Commission may recommend that the Supreme Court of North Carolina discipline the judge.

The Judicial Standards Commission began a year-long investigation of Tillett in February 2012, ultimately finding that Tillett had violated Canon 1, Canon 2, and Canon 3A(3) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct. Further, Tillett’s conduct was a “misuse of the powers of his judicial office” and “brought the judiciary into disrepute and threatened public faith and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” The Commission punished Tillett with a public reprimand in March 2013 and forbade him from participating in any proceedings to remove Britt and Parrish from office or address complaints about KDHPD.

Despite a past pattern of leaving judicial discipline up to the Judicial Standards Commission, the North Carolina State Bar filed a complaint against Tillett on March 6, 2015.

The North Carolina State Bar was created to provide discipline for lawyers.  The North Carolina State Bar is permitted to investigate when lawyers reveal confidential information without a client’s permission, a lawyer misses important deadlines, a lawyer fails to update clients on what is happening in a case, and other violations of the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.  The State Bar is able to conduct whatever disciplinary action it sees fit against attorneys, up to and including taking away an attorney’s license to practice law.

There are certain matters that are outside of the jurisdiction of the North Carolina State Bar, including complaints about judges, which typically go to the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission.  The State Bar website advises citizens who wish to make complaints against judges to contact the Judicial Standards Commission.  A July 1995 Ethics Opinion from the State Bar states that judges are subject to the Code of Judicial Conduct, which is regulated by the Judicial Standards Commission.  In a July 2013 Ethics Opinion, the Ethics Committee of the State Bar stated that they would not rule on the issue presented because professional conduct of judicial officers is outside the purview of the Ethics Committee.

Despite a past pattern of leaving judicial discipline up to the Judicial Standards Commission, the North Carolina State Bar filed a complaint against Tillett on March 6, 2015.  The complaint provides greater detail about Tillett’s improper conduct beginning in 2010, but makes no mention of the Judicial Standards Commission, the investigation, or the reprimand.

Tillett filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on March 19, 2015.  In the motion, Tillett argues that the State Bar lacks jurisdiction over him, that the State Bar has been estopped from asserting any claims against him, and that he has been deprived of due process.  The State Bar filed a response to the motion on April 6, 2015.

Cook denied speaking to Tillett personally about the bill, but admitted that he had filed it to protect Tillett and any other judges who find themselves in the position of facing further discipline by the State Bar after being disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission.

State Senator Bill Cook (R-Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans) is taking steps to assist Tillett, who swore the senator into office in January, with escaping any sanctions the State Bar might impose.  Cook believes that a judge who has already been sanctioned by the Judicial Standards Commission should not be at risk for losing his or her law license.  In a statement to The News & Observer, Cook said that allowing the State Bar to sanction a judge who had already faced discipline from the Judicial Standards Commission was akin to “double jeopardy” and opined that the complaint against Tillett is “probably a political witch hunt.”

Two dates after the State Bar’s complaint was filed, Cook filed Senate Bill 323.  The bill would clarify that only the Judicial Standards Commission has the power to discipline judges.  Cook denied speaking to Tillett personally about the bill, but admitted that he had filed it to protect Tillett and any other judges who find themselves in the position of facing further discipline by the State Bar after being disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission.

While the North Carolina General Assembly can impeach a state judge, just as Congress can impeach federal judges, the General Assembly does not have the power and authority to determine whether or how a judge gets disciplined.  The General Assembly can, however, regulate the North Carolina State Bar.  The North Carolina State Bar is part of the Executive Branch of the North Carolina State Government and was created by the State Legislature.  However, it is questionable whether this should be allowed and whether it is a smart move to allow the Legislature to control the regulating body of the legal profession.

Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor
About Regan Gatlin, Ethics Editor (42 Articles)
Regan Gatlin is a 2016 graduate and served as the Ethics Editor for the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Regan graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Sociology. Regan has previously clerked for the Insurance Section of the North Carolina Department of Justice, The General Counsel of The Select Group, and Safran Law Offices. During her experiences clerking, she gained civil litigation and research experience in the areas of insurance, construction law, labor and employment, and compliance. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition and the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Mock Trial Competition. Regan is from Smithfield, North Carolina.
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