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St. Joseph County magistrate receives public admonition

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St. Joseph Probate Magistrate Barbara Johnston received a public admonition Thursday stemming from an ex parte ruling she made in 2011 which denied the father due process in a custody hearing.

The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications issued the public admonition after Johnston’s admission that her actions violated the Indiana Code of Judicial Conduct and trial court rules designed to ensure basic due process. She violated Rules 1.1, 1.2, 2.2 and 2.5 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which require judges to ensure fairness, impartiality, diligence and integrity of the judiciary. She also violated Rule 2.9(A), which forbids ex parte contacts absent a true emergency.

In the August 2011 hearing, the maternal grandparents of a child whose mother had recently died filed a motion asking for custody of the child. Paternity had been established for the child, and the father had been making support payments. However, the grandparents and their attorney did not provide the father with a copy of the motion or notify him of the hearing and the fact that they were seeking custody.

Johnston set a hearing date and, when the father did not appear, the hearing was held and testimony on the custody motion was heard without the father’s presence. No effort was made to check the contact information the father had on file with the clerk’s office and use that information to notify him of the proceedings.

An ex parte change of custody order was granted to the grandparents and an order to change support payments was issued without giving the father an opportunity to be heard. Several months later, when the father learned of the court order, he hired an attorney and was granted custody of his child.

The commission determined that formal disciplinary charges are warranted against Johnston, but in lieu of formal disciplinary proceedings a public admonition would be issued. The admonition concludes the commission’s investigation, and Johnston will not formally be charged with ethical misconduct. The commission indicated that Johnston cooperated in the matter and acknowledged she violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by entertaining and granting an ex parte motion without prior notice to the noncustodial father or an opportunity for him to be heard.

“The Commission recognizes that when child custody is at issue, judicial officers may be confronted with parties, and their attorneys, desperately seeking urgent judicial intervention. Such occasions call upon all judges and lawyers to proceed with heightened awareness of and high regard for the importance for a parent’s right to be heard. In the absence of a true emergency that presents a risk of irreparable injury to a child, such right must be scrupulously honored and protected. This fundamental notion has long been emphasized and enforced by both the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission and the Indiana Judicial Qualifications Commission,” the admonition states.


 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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