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Marion Superior Judge Brown’s discipline case likely one for the record books

November 20, 2013

The 47-count case against a Marion Superior judge appears to be the most voluminous judicial discipline proceeding in the state’s history, according to people familiar with the case and matters of judicial discipline.

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Marion Superior Criminal Court 7 Judge Kimberly Brown withstood seven consecutive days of hearings that concluded Nov. 10 before a panel of three special masters appointed by the Indiana Supreme Court: retired Monroe Circuit Judge Viola Taliaferro, Boone Superior Judge Rebecca S. McClure and Lake Superior Judge Sheila M. Moss.

Judicial Qualifications Commission attorney Adrienne Meiring called 39 witnesses against Brown, and the state compiled more than 190 exhibits alleging a catalog of judicial misconduct. Witnesses often fumbled through three oversized ring binders each filled with several hundred pages of documents.

The unusual hearings in the Indiana Supreme Court courtroom featured testimony from a number of Brown’s current and former colleagues and court staff to the special masters. The case opened with video of Brown refusing to take an oath to tell the truth during a deposition.

Brown is accused of delayed releases of at least nine defendants from the Marion County Jail, in one case for 22 days. Brown also is accused of a host of rule violations that involved failing to properly oversee her court, improperly supervising trials, failing to act on Court of Appeals orders, showing hostility toward parties who came before her, and retaliating against court staff who complained, among other things.

Marion Superior Master Commissioner Deborah Shook testified that after the commission began investigating Brown, working in her court became intolerable. “I asked to be removed,” Shook testified. “It was becoming a very stressful environment, and it was affecting my health.” She said she had the impression she was being “set up” by Brown.

Shook said it was difficult as an officer of the court to testify in such a proceeding. “It’s stressful, and I feel sorry that we are all here,” she said haltingly at one point.

Brown’s attorney Aaron Haith argued his client was being singled out for problems that he said were persistent among judges on the Marion Superior criminal bench. “They all had problems … with delayed releases,” he said.

“They’re not judged,” Haith said. “Judge Brown is.”

Haith said the Marion Superior Executive Committee instituted training for judges because of problems of delayed releases, and he cited a lack of communications between the courts and the jail for the problem of defendants being held longer than a judge has ordered. “You will find all the judges are suffering or worried” about the problems, Haith told the panel.

Senior Judge Barbara Collins, who retired from Marion Superior Criminal Court 8 at the end of 2012, buttressed Brown’s argument of systemic dysfunction. 

“There has been this problem forever,” Collins testified about delayed releases from jail, estimating that at least once a week during most of her time on the criminal bench she learned of a defendant behind bars after she ordered a release. Most of the time, it was due to staff failing to enter orders, she said.

As Brown alleged, Collins also said many of the problems she encountered with delayed releases arose from staff refusing to follow proper procedures when making minute entries on antiquated computer systems. The problems seldom arose from errors made by jail staff, Collins said.

Haith sought to shift blame from Brown to a “sour staff” that he said she inherited when she moved between criminal court divisions at the Indianapolis City-County Building. Brown hears a docket of mainly domestic misdemeanor and Class D felony cases.

“It is a high-stress position for a judge,” Haith said. Brown also tried to change the court staff but was unable to do so, he explained. He noted problems of staff integrity, knowledge and training and said the quality of staff performance “can be a help or a hindrance to the court.”

Collins testified that when she took over for a retiring judge years back she encountered resentments among staff, similar to those Brown alleged after she moved to a new criminal division courtroom.“There was a lot of conflict and I had to watch my back,” Collins said of moving into Criminal Court 8 more than a dozen years earlier. She said staff often bickered and left work early leaving stacks of unfinished paperwork.

“People just decided they’re not going to do things,” she said.

Commission attorney Tom Carusillo pressed Collins on why she didn’t terminate employees or report those problems to court administrators, and she noted that at the beginning of her time on the Marion Superior bench there wasn’t anyone to report to. She said she did terminate some staff for unexcused absences or for lying to her, and she discussed the problems of delayed releases informally with other judges and attorneys, though not through a formal complaint with the Marion Superior Executive Committee.

Carusillo angered Collins at one point by asking whether her level of contact with Haith increased after the commission filed its disciplinary petition against Brown. “I’m affronted by that question,” she said.

Haith followed up by asking Collins whether he would be able to influence her testimony. “There is never any time you would have told me what to do,” Collins said.

Meiring focused at the outset on the video of Brown’s deposition. “I am always an officer of the court,” Brown says, refusing to be sworn. “I am a judge.” The first witness called, Brown tearfully testified that she simply made a decision not to be sworn.

“I believe I’m always an officer of the court and therefore always bound to the truth,” she said.

“But you decided to do something different today,” Meiring responded, noting Brown took an oath before testifying in front of the masters.

Presiding over the panel, Taliaferro asked Brown multiple times to explain why she believed she wasn’t required to swear an oath at the deposition.

“I wasn’t basing it on anything other than I’m always an officer of the court,” Brown said.

Meiring used Brown’s moment of defiance from the deposition video to further the narrative of a rogue judge with little respect for the rules or her peers and colleagues. She quoted Brown’s alleged words to practitioners inquiring about overdue rulings – “This isn’t McDonald’s … It’ll get ruled on when it gets ruled on.”

“This is not simply a situation of a bad day,” she said, “This is systemic neglect and failing to do her judicial duty.” Meiring called Brown’s demeanor “rampant disrespect and abuse of various court officials and actors who came before her.”

Meiring argued that Brown had shown a lack of cooperation with the commission, noting that she had responded to yes-or-no questions by saying “the record speaks for itself” 106 times in depositions.

The Indiana Supreme Court in September chose not to suspend Brown after the commission sought the immediate sanction. Justices instead scheduled the hearings on an expedited basis and appointed the special masters. The masters’ report and transcripts of the hearing are due by Dec. 30, after which the court will rule. Action taken by the Supreme Court can range from no discipline to removal from the bench.•
 

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