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Justices disagree on judge's penalty

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A suspended Marion Superior judge will be able to return to the bench after another 60 days off the bench, this time without pay.

The Indiana Supreme Court issued that decision late Wednesday afternoon, but in doing so expressed wide disagreement about the severity of the sanction. Two justices wanted a one-year suspension for Judge Grant W. Hawkins, while two others would have preferred a 30-day sentence.

Balancing the weight of the case against Judge Hawkins, his colleague's disagreement, and a three-judge panel's recommendation for removal, Justice Brent Dickson was the sole member of the court to say the ultimate 60-day suspension was the most appropriate penalty.

The order ends the disciplinary action In the matter of the Hon. Grant. W. Hawkins, No. 49S00-0804-JD-157, which has been ongoing since April 2008. The case came to light in early 2007 after it was learned a wrongfully convicted man sat in prison for nearly two years after DNA testing cleared him of a rape.

After an investigation, the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed charges last year that Judge Hawkins' lack of court supervision resulted in case delays leading to the man's longer incarceration. The judge's former Commissioner Nancy Broyles was also charged at that time, but she resigned last year and has been permanently banned from the bench as a result of this case.

A three-judge panel and the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications recommended his removal last year after an October hearing, while Judge Hawkins pushed for a suspension with pay. Justices temporarily suspended him Nov. 25 but allowed him to continue earning his state-set $125,647 annual salary while they reached a final decision.

Effective today, the criminal judge who's been presiding over Criminal Division 5 starts this 60-day suspension.

"A suspension from office without pay, regardless of duration, is not a minor sanction," the per curiam opinion said. "Even more than a public reprimand, any such suspension is a significant blemish on a sitting judge's reputation."

Despite that resolution, though, only three judges were in the majority agreeing that this would be an adequate resolution.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard and Justice Frank Sullivan wanted a yearlong suspension without pay based on the serious nature of the case and a panel's recommendation for removal.

The chief justice wrote in his own dissent, "A suspension of (60) days is not an adequate sanction for a judge whose disorganization and indifference caused a man wrongly to sit in prison for two years.

"This is not a story of about an isolated error of omission, of which any of us can be guilty of from time to time," he wrote. "Rather, the evidence reflects a series of failures under circumstances that afforded many reminders and alerts. These did not avail because Judge Hawkins' office was a place where family phone calls went unheeded and letters went to the wastebasket."

He aligned with Justice Sullivan, who noted that while the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly for good reason, this wasn't the case because the delay was entirely because Judge Hawkins didn't give the case adequate attention.

On the other hand, Justice Theodore Boehm wrote a dissenting opinion that Justice Robert D. Rucker concurred with - that they preferred a lesser penalty because the trial judge didn't intentionally do anything wrong and because he'd already been suspended for more than three months

"I believe that this record establishes that Judge Hawkins is guilty of nothing more than excessive reliance on others and failure to have good procedures to control the flow of cases," Justice Boehm wrote, describing a suspension without pay for more than a few weeks often is tantamount to a forced resignation. "In my view, a (30) day suspension is a very substantial sanction and the most that these facts warrant. I nonetheless agree that a suspension of (60) days is the proper disposition of this case, given that a majority favors a suspension for that period or longer."

Indianapolis attorney Kevin McGoff, who represented Judge Hawkins, said the judge is relieved to have this behind him and returning to the bench after this 60 days.

"This represents how the system works and that our justices operate independently and have their own opinions but can respectfully disagree and come to a resolution," he said. "I think that our courts have a healthy debate, and this is evidence of that."

More coverage of this case will be in the March 18-31, 2009, issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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