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Madison County judge resigns amid misconduct investigation

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A longtime Madison County judge who's been repeatedly sanctioned and even suspended in the past is resigning amid a new investigation into his alleged misconduct during a 2007 murder trial.

Madison Circuit Judge Frederick Spencer, who's been on the bench for 26 years, is stepping down Friday following months of investigation by the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications.

The judge sent a letter to Gov. Mitch Daniels about his resignation, according to Indiana Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathryn Dolan. That letter says the resignation takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Friday with full benefits, including 60 percent of his salary.

"I have almost 40 years of public service," the judge wrote. "I have served my county, my state, my country and my hometown. I look forward to a less stressful life."

The judicial ethics commission had been investigating Judge Spencer's conduct related to the case of State v. Ward, No. 48C01-0612-MR-00480, in which Kathy Jo Ward was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of her husband while he slept.

Details of that investigation or the judicial conduct issues stemming from the Ward case weren't public at the time Judge Spencer's resignation was announced, but some details have been outlined in press coverage of the investigation. News articles from the Anderson Herald Bulletin earlier this year cite a letter to the judicial commission from an Anderson attorney involved in the Ward case. Allegations are that Judge Spencer initiated ex parte communications concerning matters pending in the court, decided issues prematurely and on the basis of improper considerations, and attempted to deprive a person of her constitutional right to appeal and her statutory right to seek modification of her sentence.

Dolan declined to elaborate on the details leading up to the judge's resignation this week. She said the commission decided to close its investigation in light of Judge Spencer's resignation, and that officials had determined his prompt resignation "was in the best interest of the judiciary and the public."

This is the fifth time in 12 years that Judge Spencer has faced a judicial misconduct investigation and received a sanction as a result:

• In November 2003, Judge Spencer received a 30-day suspension after he appointed a special prosecutor without having a hearing in a 2001 case involving a group of teenagers placing explosives around an attorney's home.

• In December 2001, the judge received a public reprimand by the Indiana Supreme Court after a re-election television ad from the prior year was found to have violated the Code of Judicial Conduct - specifically prohibiting judicial candidates from making promises of conduct in office, from making statements that commit them to issues likely to come before the court, and for failing to maintain the dignity of the office.

• In December 1999, the Judicial Qualifications Commission publicly admonished Judge Spencer for entertaining and granting an ex parte petition for change of child custody without notice to the custodial father and for failing to communicate with a Florida judge who had assumed jurisdiction over the case.

• In October 1997, the commission sent a private letter to Judge Spencer after its investigation into a complaint about his alleged ex parte communications.

The online appellate docket also shows Judge Spencer has had 14 recusal or writ requests filed against him on various cases.

Multiple claims have come up in recent years about Judge Spencer's conduct during criminal proceedings, and local lawyers have made multiple requests for recusals and publicly stated they could not receive a fair trial for their clients in front of the judge. The issues have surfaced in rulings from the Indiana Court of Appeals, and were brought up by the judge's opponent in the November 2006 election.

The Ward case that led to the judicial investigation remains ongoing in the post-conviction relief phase, and it's been moved to Madison Superior Judge Thomas Newman's courtroom. Judge Spencer had sentenced Ward to 30 years in prison, and the Indiana Court of Appeals in April 2008 upheld her sentence. Attorneys expect a hearing within the next couple of months on a petition to modify her sentence.

In his early 70s, Judge Spencer has been practicing since 1971 and first took the bench in 1983. He won his latest re-election in 2006 and his term was set to expire in 2012. The Indiana Supreme Court today appointed Senior Judge Jack L. Brinkman to serve as Judge Pro Tem until the governor names someone to fill the vacancy until the next election. Judge Brinkman reitred from Madison Superior Court 2 at the end of 2008.

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