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New judge gets 60-day unpaid suspension

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The Indiana Supreme Court has suspended LaPorte Superior Judge Jennifer L. Koethe for 60 days without pay, effective March 12. The judge had already been suspended with pay after she was indicted for attempted obstruction of justice following her accidental shooting in December 2008.

On March 11, the justices accepted the 60-day unpaid suspension proposed by Judge Koethe and the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications in their joint "Statement of Circumstances and Conditional Agreement for Discipline."

In addition to the suspension, Judge Koethe must disqualify herself from presiding in any case in which certain law enforcement officials or any other state witness for her case appeared during her criminal trial.

Judge Koethe was indicted May 7, 2009, on a Class D felony attempted obstruction of justice charge, related to asking a law enforcement officer to get rid of a note she had written to her husband the night of the shooting. She and her husband Stephan had been drinking and got into an argument that night, so she got a gun to make Stephan believe she was suicidal. She accidentally shot herself; she did not think the gun was loaded.

Even though Judge Koethe believed the note wasn't relevant to any crime, she still asked the officer to find it and get rid of it because she was embarrassed by its personal contents.

The Supreme Court suspended Judge Koethe in May with pay per Indiana Admission and Discipline Rule 25(V) (A). In December 2009, the commission charged her with violating the 2008 Judicial Code of Conduct and Rules of Professional Conduct for withholding or misrepresenting pertinent information during taped statements with officials and for asking the officer to destroy the note. A jury acquitted the judge on the felony charge Jan. 5.

In the per curiam opinion, the justices agreed that the proposed suspension is appropriate. While the judge did ask the law enforcement officer to get rid of potential evidence, she did suffer a head wound that may have affected her mental state. Also, she has been cooperative with the commission during its investigation, is remorseful, and has undertaken appropriate measures to address the underlying personal issues that may have contributed to the shooting.

The judge must also satisfy certain therapeutic treatment and reporting requirements as part of her sanction.

"Had this case come to us after a full trial of the merits, we may have found a different penalty appropriate," the per curiam opinion states. "As we stated recently in another matter, 'A suspension from office without pay, regardless of duration, is not a minor sanction. Even more than a public reprimand, any such suspension is a significant blemish on a sitting judge's reputation.'"

Judge Koethe will be automatically reinstated at 12:01 a.m. May 11.

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