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Justices order new trial based on traffic judge's conduct

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The Indiana Supreme Court has set the stage for a judicial disciplinary action against a Marion County Traffic Court judge for his courtroom conduct on a speeding and suspended license case last year.

In a three-page per curiam opinion Thursday in Christian Hollinsworth v. State of Indiana, No. 49S02-1006-CR-286, the state justices reversed a woman's misdemeanor conviction for driving with a suspended license and remanded her case for a new trial. Justices wrote a carefully crafted ruling that sticks to procedural points but highlights bias displayed and inappropriate behavior by Marion Superior Judge William E. Young during plea negotiations and during a bench trial and sentencing.

Police pulled Hollinsworth over in August 2007 after radar showed she was traveling 66 mph in a 45-mph construction zone along westbound Interstate 70. The officer checking her information discovered her license had been suspended, and issued a citation for speeding and for driving with a suspended license - both misdemeanors she was later charged with. She failed to appear at her first court hearing, but later entered a preliminary not guilty plea before a bench trial started in February 2009.

Just before the trial started, her attorney asked for a brief recess to "sign off" on a plea agreement but no agreement was reached. The lawyer asked for a continuance, and Judge Young denied that and then wouldn't allow a plea after she informed the court she would accept one and didn't want to proceed to trial.

Court records show that Judge Young "exhibited impatience" during trial by citing the time and his "full afternoon" docket when talking to Hollingworth about a plea agreement, then told her, "I don't know if I want to take your plea. I'd rather just go to trial, I think. I don't like being jerked around at all, all right?" At sentencing, Judge Young noted that Hollingworth had other pending charges on theft and battery and her attorney said those were alleged charges, to which the judge responded, "Sure they are."

Hollingworth received a year in county jail and her driving privileges were suspended for an additional 365 days. The judge also found her to be indigent, and didn't impose any additional fines or penalties on the speeding conviction. The Court of Appeals in November issued a not for publication ruling on her suspended license appeal, affirming the conviction and sentence. Judges Elaine Brown and Melissa May determined the trial judge hadn't abused his discretion in denying the plea and his statements didn't amount to fundamental error, but wrote in a footnote that they didn't condone Judge Young's comments. Judge Terry Crone dissented after finding the judge had demonstrated the appearance of partiality and denied her a fair trial, and that meant he would reverse the conviction for a new trial.

Granting transfer, the Supreme Court agreed with that and found Hollingworth deserved a new trial on the misdemeanor conviction. Justices cited Indiana Judicial Conduct Canon 2, which requires a judge "to perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently;" they also cited Rule 2.2's comment 1, Rule 2.3(A), and Rule 2.8(A) - which respectively require the jurists act "without bias or prejudice," that the judges "be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants," and that a judge disqualify himself or herself if their impartiality might reasonably be questioned.

"The trial court's behavior in this case did not meet these standards," the justices' ruling says, vacating the intermediate appellate order and sending it back to the Marion County judge for a new trial.

Justice Theodore Boehm agreed with the majority on the merits of the case, but wrote that he would have denied transfer because the executed sentence in this case has already expired.

While the ruling indicates that Judge Young fell short of meeting the judicial conduct standards, it doesn't go into any potential disciplinary matters. That would be up to the Judicial Qualifications Commission to explore; those investigations are confidential until a verified complaint is filed or until the commission issues an admonishment or turns an action over to the Supreme Court for possible disciplinary action. The appellate court docket does not show any misconduct actions filed concerning Judge Young.

This is not the first case where Judge Young's conduct has raised questions. His traffic court practices have been the subject of a separate state suit that got transferred to federal court last year but is now back in that county court. In May, the Supreme Court appointed Morgan Circuit Judge Matthew Hansen as special judge in the case of Toshinao Ishii, et. al. v. Marion Superior 13, the Hon. William E. Young, Judge, and the City of Indianapolis, No. 49D11-0912-PL-55538, which is a class action complaint seeking to end the policies put in place by Judge Young since he took the traffic court bench in January 2009. The suit accuses the judge of instituting fine and access policies that undermine confidence in the judiciary's integrity and impartiality, and are highly prejudicial to litigants.

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