Judge William Kent’s preliminary ruling seemed like a first step toward compromise. Margaret and Stuart Besen, who agreed their marriage was beyond repair, would remain in their suburban Suffolk County house, living in separate rooms – and keeping away from each other – while sharing custody until a resolution could be reached.
But within weeks, the situation deteriorated. Stuart Besen, a politically connected attorney for the town of Huntington, had an anger problem, Margaret told authorities. The couple’s screaming matches left Margaret feeling intimidated and their children – a daughter, 11, and son, 7 – terrified, she said. So in August of that year she obtained an order of protection prohibiting Stuart from harassing her. Three weeks later, Stuart entered Margaret’s bedroom and hovered over her as she slept, she told police. They arrested him for violating the order, reporting that Stuart had stared down at Margaret with his arms folded on three consecutive nights. She got temporary possession of the family home.
In the years that followed, Besen’s hopes for an equitable settlement dwindled as she battled a series of harsh and hard-to-explain decisions against her. Though she could never prove anything, she suspected that the scales had tipped for reasons unrelated to the evidence in her case. If true, Besen faced what experts say is one of the most troubling threats to our nation’s system of justice: judges, who, through incompetence, bias or outright corruption, prevent the wronged from getting a fair hearing in our courts.
“The decorum and bias and the perfectly unethical behavior of the judges is really rampant,” said Amanda Lundergan, a defense attorney in Royal Palm Beach, Florida, who confronted a nest of judicial conflicts in her state’s rapid-fire foreclosure rulings – dubbed the “rocket-docket” – following the housing market collapse. “It’s judicial bullying.”
Judges in local, state and federal courts across the country routinely hide their connections to litigants and their lawyers. These links can be social – they may have been law school classmates or share common friends – political, financial or ideological. In some instances the two may have mutual investment interests. They might be in-laws. Occasionally they are literally in bed together. While it’s unavoidable that such relationships will occur, when they do create a perception of bias, a judge is duty-bound to at the very least disclose that information, and if it is creates an actual bias, allow a different judge to take over.
All too often, however, the conflicted jurist says nothing and proceeds to rule in favor of the connected party, while the loser goes off without realizing an undisclosed bias doomed her case.
“Everybody should have the right to ensure the judge sitting on their case doesn’t have a conflict,” said Mary McQueen, executive director of the National Council on State Courts.
“It’s absolutely imperative that people have full faith and confidence in the judicial process.”
‘Explain, defend or apologize’
Hundreds of judicial transgressions have been uncovered during the last decade, with results that cost the defeated litigants their home, business, custody, health or freedom.
Some of the best-known cases involve judges who ultimately did suffer consequences for their behavior, including Texas judge Christopher Dupuy, who bullied four lawyers who filed conflict-of-interest recusal motions between 2011 and 2013. Attorney Lori Laird asked that Dupuy bow out in 2013 because she’d represented Dupuy’s ex-wife in the couple’s custody battle in Galveston. The judge responded by slapping her with 37 counts of contempt, demanding that she “explain, defend or apologize” for her motion. He later sentenced her to 220 days in jail, although she didn’t serve any time.
“It was the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever seen,” Laird told Contently.org. “It also caused great damage to both of my clients.” Dupuy was admonished in November – after he’d already retired and was sentenced to two years’ probation for pleading guilty to misdemeanor counts of perjury and misuse of government property.
But court critics say that one reason judicial violations are common is because they frequently go unpunished. When litigants ask a judge to back away because of a conflict, they risk being told no, then face possible retaliation, so many don’t bother. If a litigant or an attorney files a complaint with an oversight body, there’s only about a 10% chance that state court authorities will properly investigate the allegation, according to a Contently.org analysis of data from 12 states.
The analysis shows that a dozen of these commissions collectively dismissed out of hand 90% of the complaints filed during the last five years, tossing 33,613 of 37,216 grievances without conducting any substantive inquiry. When they did take a look – 3,693 times between 2010 and 2014 – investigators found wrongdoing almost half the time, issuing disciplinary actions in 1,751 cases, about 47%.
The actions taken ranged from a letter of warning to censure, a formal sanction that indicates a judge is guilty of misconduct but does not merit suspension or removal.
Actually removing a judge was a rarity. Just 19 jurists in 12 states were ordered off the bench for malfeasance, which is about three per decade for each state. And even that result is becoming less common, with only one removal in 2014 and three in 2013 among all 12 states.
The states examined – California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington, Georgia and South Carolina – were chosen because they comprise a representative sample from different populations and areas of the country and because they had matching data for the years 2010 through 2014.
California, which created the first judicial disciplinary body in the country in 1960, had a dismissal rate of 98%. It did not suspend or remove a single judge in 2013 or 2014 and acted just once over the last five years, removing a sitting judge in 2012. Colorado’s lone judicial action since 2010 was a suspension in 2013. Texas has not removed a judge in five years, though it has suspended 23 for varying lengths of time.
One discouraging factor is the secrecy under which these commissions operate. Allegations against a judge are commonly kept confidential unless a sanction of some kind is imposed. New York’s CJC, for example, is prevented by law from disclosing whether anyone has complained about a judge, discussing specific allegations, revealing what evidence might have been presented or what steps, if any, it took to investigative.
When conduct boards do act, the sanctions usually amount to an admonishment that may be embarrassing but costs the judge little.
Among those still on the bench after ethical violations are Louisiana judge Robin Free. Free oversaw a personal injury claim in 2010 by a man and his wife, Israel and Leslie Robles, who were hurt in an oil field run by Houston-based fracking contractor Integration Production Services, Inc. The trial had begun when the two sides agreed to a $1.2m settlement. As he mulled signing off on the deal, Free arranged for some post-trial R&R at Casa Bonita, a hunting and fishing ranch in George West, Texas, owned by the victims’ lawyer, David Rumley. He flew there aboard the Rumley firm’s private jet.
It wasn’t Free’s first ethical blunder. In 2001 he presided over a fouled-water case against Dow Chemical, trying to resolve the matter even as his mother was a member of the plaintiff’s class. Free is still serving on the bench after being docked 30 days pay in December and forking over a $6,723.64 fine.
Raoul Felder, the well-known New York divorce attorney, served as a CJC board member between 2004 and 2008, helping the commission sift through thousands of complaints. He came away from the experience perplexed by its decision-making.
“I wouldn’t say [the CJC] is toothless, but it’s arbitrary,” Felder said. “It can be unreasonably tough on judges who commit trivial offenses while going easy on judges who are really bizarrely out of the mainstream, doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”
Judicial discipline at the federal level is almost non-existent. A Contently.org examination of the most recent five years of complaint data shows that 5,228 grievances were lodged against federal jurists between 2010 and 2014, including 2,561 that specifically alleged bias or conflict of interest. But only three judges were disciplined during those years and each got the mildest rebuke on the books: censure or reprimand. None was suspended or removed.
The numbers suggest that at least some of these judges’ rulings did not pass the smell test: 4,168 of the dismissed complaints were tossed due to a lack of sufficient evidence, bringing up the possibility that some litigants raised valid concerns but failed to find definitive proof.
‘I’m on food stamps’ and he makes more than $500,000 a year
In the Besen divorce, judge Kent’s initial decisions were fairly typical for a couple in their situation. He imposed financial obligations on Stuart, the moneyed spouse, including $200 in weekly child support and $500 in monthly car payments. But when Stuart didn’t make the payments and the vehicle was repossessed, the judge did nothing. Nor did he act when Stuart honored only part of the support he owed, leaving Margaret, who was then unemployed, struggling to provide for her kids.
“Occasionally he paid $200 a week, sometimes $175, sometimes $120,” she recalled. “The church had given me vouchers for gas, and I was getting food from the food pantry. I couldn’t cash checks. One year I found on his tax returns he had made $528,000, and I am getting food stamps and trying to get groceries home on a bicycle. It was extremely humiliating.”
Margaret and Stuart accused one another of mistreating their children. Police and child protection service workers became involved. Kent ordered her to undergo a psychological evaluation, which slammed Margaret as a danger to her children as she was allegedly alienating them from their father. No abuse by either parent was substantiated.
Margaret won a court order of protection barring Stuart from contact with her children for a year. But when Kent issued his final decree less than six weeks later, he awarded Stuart full custody, while Margaret was allowed only supervised visits. And he ordered Margaret to pay back half the cost of her nursing degree and to sell her diamond engagement ring and split the proceeds with Stuart. The judge also reversed the support arrangements. While Stuart would pay $1,500 a month in maintenance to Margaret, she now owed Stuart $153.90 a week for the children, even though she was earning about $13,000 a year as a part-time aide in an assisted-living facility.
Margaret began to look into her husband’s dealings and discovered, through searching public records, that he and judge Kent had possible connections. In 2010, Stuart was appointed as the Suffolk County representative on a statewide commission for vetting local judicial candidates. That same year, an organization based at Stuart Besen’s Garden City law office, the Long Island Coalition for Responsible Government, donated $7,500 to candidate Richard Ambro, who got elected and became one of Kent’s fellow Supreme Court judges in Suffolk’s 10th district. In his role as Huntington’s town lawyer, Besen argued cases before these very judges. He’d entered a circle of judicial insiders.
“I’m in the middle of a large group of people who’ve got money and influence and who are all connected,” said Margaret Besen. “I’m not being afforded an opportunity to get a fair shake.”
Margaret had no way of knowing whether the connections she uncovered played any role in how Kent ruled in her case. But her concern deepened when she made an additional discovery about her house. Kent had ordered the Besen home, the most valuable marital asset, to be sold and the proceeds divided, putting Margaret in line to receive possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then she found an online listing offering the property for sale – with the judge’s wife, Patricia Kent, as broker. The home, which was listed for $749,999 with Patricia Kent’s photo and contact information on Realty Connect USA, is currently more than $15,000 in arrears on its property taxes and no longer appears to be actively offered. Margaret was evicted from the house in 2013 and lives in a modest apartment a few miles away. She has yet to receive a penny for her interest in the property.
Patricia Kent claimed she had never represented any of the properties her husband had ordered sold in divorce or other cases. “I have never been a broker for any of his houses; we’re very clear about that,” Patricia Kent said in a phone interview.
A reporter informed her of the agency listing with her information attached to the Besen property. She said her photo could have appeared because she was a broker with the same firm as the agent who did have the listing. “The only person who gets the commission is the listing agent that listed the property,” she said.
Patricia said William Kent was unlikely to comment. “I’m not so sure that he’d want to speak with you,” she said, adding: “When I see him, I’ll let him know, and if he’s interested he’ll give you a call.”
Kent didn’t call. And Stuart Besen did not respond to messages left at his office.
Scott L Cummings, a professor of legal ethics at UCLA law school, said the case raised “significant ethical red flags”, because of the judge’s wife’s alleged involvement in offering the Besen family home for sale. “Not knowing the details of how his spouse might have been assigned as broker, the idea that a judge might benefit financially from the sale of a property in dispute in a pending matter seems to raise a serious question of impartiality.”
Ronald Rotunda, a professor at Chapman University law school in Orange, California, said: “What judge Kent did here seems odd. The husband makes over a half million a year, she makes $13,000 a year, and the judge orders her to pay child support (which is tax free to him and not deductible for her).”
But when Margaret Besen protested, she found no relief. When she asked Kent to recuse himself, he refused. When she complained to the state watchdog responsible for investigating judicial wrongdoing, writing two letters, they blew her off. In a terse response this June, the New York Commission for Judicial Conduct reiterated its initial decision, stating that “there was insufficient indication of judicial misconduct to justify discipline”. When a panel such as the CJC declines to get involved, the plaintiff has little recourse.
This was not the first time a litigant raised questions about Kent’s integrity.
Donna Schuler, also a divorcing mother in Suffolk County, asked that judge Kent recuse himself from her case in 2011 after claiming his unwarranted delays and stalling had drained her financially. Schuler was also rebuffed when she asked the commission to step in and remove Judge Kent from her case.
A culture of judicial impunity
Critics of the Suffolk supreme court claim a culture of rule-breaking exists, pointing to a red-faced moment in 2007 when Marion McNulty, then the county’s top matrimonial judge, was admonished by the state’s disciplinary panel for aggressively fund-raising for her favorite charity, a women’s nonprofit, while on the job. McNulty went so far as to hit up attorneys for checks in the courthouse, a blatant violation of ethical rules.
But a culture of judicial impunity extends far beyond Long Island’s county courts. Indeed, even the US supreme court has been tarnished on this issue.
Justice Steven Breyer owned $215,000 in health-care stocks when deciding on the legality of the Affordable Care Act in 2012. Justice Samuel Alito’s portfolio included $2,000 in stock in The Walt Disney Co. in 2008, the year the court heard Disney, FCC v. Fox Television Stations. And perhaps most famously, justice Antonin Scalia has participated in the Bush v. Gore case, even though his son Eugene’s law firm represented one of the parties. In another case, Scalia remained in the panel despite having gone on a duck hunting trip with former Vice-President Dick Cheney while he was being sued to reveal the details of secret meetings he held with oil company executives in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
After his vacation with Cheney was revealed, Scalia scoffed at the suggestion he was compromised and defended his decision to remain on the case. “I do not believe my impartiality can reasonably be questioned,” he said in a 21-page memo. “If it is reasonable to think that a supreme court justice can be bought so cheap, the nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined.” But Sen Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, implored Scalia to withdraw. “Instead of strengthening public confidence in our court system, Justice Scalia’s decision risks undermining it,” he stated.
In fact, US supreme court justices enjoy a special privilege: they are the only judges exempt from the federal Code of Conduct, which demands judicial impartiality and prohibits a jurist from presiding when he or she has “a personal bias concerning a party to the case”.
Restoring court’s battered integrity
Recusal issues often spur judicial complaints. But the watchdog panels that evaluate them, both on the state and federal level, are not courts and therefore lack the authority to review the merits of a litigant’s case. Even a substantiated charge of misconduct won’t change the outcome of a ruling or verdict; it merely opens the door for a new appeal to be filed, which for beleaguered litigants can be costly, time-consuming and often not worth it. Many do continue to fight. Others simply vent.
The online vitriol directed at unscrupulous judges, which began in the mid- 2000s, has built to a howling digital crescendo. Websites including The Robe Probe, The Judiciary Report and The Robing Room, which rate judges the way Yelp rates restaurants, are rife with railing as embittered, mostly anonymous plaintiffs rip into judicial decisions they feel were biased or corrupt.
Mounting criticism led to a remarkable development last year. The chief justices of each state gathered and declared that something had to be done. They implored lawmakers to enact legislation that might restore their courts’ battered integrity by forcing more transparency on their systems and holding judges accountable when they engaged in unethical behavior.
“Fair and impartial justice requires that judges act without regard to the identity of parties or their attorneys, the judge’s own interests or likely criticism,” said the resolution of the Conference of Chief Justices in January 2014. A judge should step away when there is “actual conflict or bias or other impropriety…or when a reasonable disinterested person would conclude that an appearance of impropriety exists.”
The decree was set in motion by a precedent-setting 2009 Supreme Court decision involving a dispute between two West Virginia coal companies that had done business with each other for years – until one went bankrupt – leading to a judicial scandal that inspired a John Grisham novel.
In an appeal of a case in West Virginia court, A.T. Massey Coal Co. CEO Don Blankenship spent $3m to elect Brent Benjamin, who ultimately provided the swing vote that overturned a $50m judgment against his company. Benjamin rebuffed repeated demands that the newly elected justice recuse himself because of his obvious conflict.
The US Supreme Court ruled that Benjamin’s bias was so extreme that his failure to step aside violated Caperton’s right to due process under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment. The case, which spawned Grisham’s 2008 best-seller, “The Appeal,” underscored the kind of underhanded dealing that has stained the judiciary.
A further nudge for reform came last year when the Center for Public Integrity published a report on financial conflicts of interest. Among its findings: on 26 occasions in the preceding three years, federal appellate judges ruled on cases involving companies in which they owned stock or where they had a financial tie to an attorney appearing before them.
It also created a grading system to gauge how diligent each state was in collecting personal financial information from its judges, including stock ownership and outside sources of income, and how accessible that data was to the public. The center said that 42 states, plus the District of Columbia, failed its test. Six others earned a D grade, while two – California and Maryland – got Cs. California’s score, 77, the highest of any state, was seven points below the federal government’s grade of 84.
The report highlighted the type of conflict that can be most readily identified and that doing so requires full disclosure from the judges. Stock ownership, even if minimal, should automatically disqualify a judge from hearing a case, many experts believe. “If a judge owns a single share in a company involved in a case, he should recuse himself instantly,” says Rotunda, a leading law scholar.
It’s been more than two years since Margaret Besen has seen her children, who are now 12 and 16. There’s no money to pay the court supervisor, so they can’t visit. Nor does Besen have the funds to continue fighting. Kent retired shortly after making his decision.
“The hardest thing in my life is that I can’t be with my children and I can’t have an impact on my children’s upbringing,” Besen said over coffee at a Long Island diner. “A lot of people do not have any idea how the judicial system works or doesn’t work until you’re in it. We think we’re in a democratic society. We think we’re run by rules. But they are not being upheld by the court at all.”
This story was produced in collaboration with The Contently Foundation for Investigative Reporting.