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Justices order Marion County traffic judge's suspension

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The Indiana Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the Marion County traffic judge who’s admitted he imposed excessive fines and treated people unfairly in his court partly because he wanted to discourage future litigants from exercising their constitutional right to trial.

In a unanimous order dated Tuesday, the state justices ordered that Marion Superior Judge William E. Young be suspended for 30 days without pay. The 48-page document that includes a one-page order accepting agreed discipline and 10-page statement of circumstances culminates a disciplinary action that has been ongoing for four months but involves the judge’s conduct going back to January 2009.

A full opinion on this matter will be issued at a later time detailing when the suspension takes effect, according to Supreme Court’s public information officer Kathryn Dolan. The order says the judge must also pay costs associated with the proceedings.

A disciplinary hearing before three master commissioners had been scheduled for Dec. 8, but this agreed discipline cancels the need for that hearing. Short of the court opinion outlining the final details, this disciplinary sanction effectively closes a chapter on a local judge who in the past year has been reversed by the state’s highest appellate courts, criticized by those higher jurists on more than one occasion for his practices and conduct, sued by litigants who’ve claimed unfair treatment and excessive fines in his court, and prompted legislative outrage and a revision to state law that now caps the amount judges can impose for traffic fines.

The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications in July formally charged the trial judge with misconduct on allegations that he “engaged in a practice of imposing substantially higher penalties against traffic court litigants who chose to have trials and lost,” and that Judge Young “routinely made statements implying that litigants should not demand trials and would be penalized for doing so if they lost.”

Specifically, the commission detailed the judge’s alleged misconduct in the 2009 case of Christian Hollinsworth, who police pulled over in August 2007 for speeding. The case ultimately went to a bench trial last year before Judge Young.

Just before the trial started, Hollinsworth’s 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 Hollinsworth 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 Hollinsworth 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 Hollinsworth had other pending charges on theft and battery. Her attorney said those were alleged charges, to which the judge responded, "Sure they are."

Hollinsworth 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.

According to the Judicial Qualifications allegations, the judge “exhibited impatience and frustration” with Hollinsworth and her attorney, and he made “sarcastic remarks” while insisting that the trial move forward despite the litigant’s objection.

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed that conviction on June 3 and ordered a new trial in the case of Hollinsworth v. State, No. 49S02-1006-CR-286, pointing specifically to Judge Young’s behavior that violated three judicial conduct canons requiring impartiality, patience, unbiased behavior, and recusal if a judge’s impartiality might be questioned.

“The trial court’s behavior in this case did not meet these standards,” the justices wrote.

In the statement of circumstances issued this week, Judge Young agreed to the stipulated facts that included how he imposed substantially higher fines against unsuccessful litigants who’d insisted on trials because “he believed that those litigants shouldn’t have pursued trials and, in part, because he wanted to discourage other litigants from exercising their constitutional rights to trials.”

The document also notes the judge routinely did not consider specific circumstances of each case, such as a person’s driving record, in deciding how someone should be fined after they’d argued their case before him and lost.

“Judge Young acknowledges that he should impose the penalty based on an individualized assessment of the litigant and the particular case, even in traffic infraction cases,” the statement says. “Judge Young affirms to the community that he will do so on all future cases in which there is discretion to the penalty imposed as part of the judgment and will give appropriate consideration to each litigant’s specific circumstances.”

Read more about traffic court issues in Indiana in the latest issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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