The Indiana Supreme Court has suspended 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.
While the suspension hasn’t yet started, the unanimous order on Nov. 23 suspends Marion Superior Judge William E. Young for 30 days without pay for his conduct dating 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 the 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 sanction agreed to in November canceled the need for that hearing. Short of that final opinion, this disciplinary sanction effectively closes a chapter for a 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 who’s prompted legislative outrage and revision to state law that now caps how much 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.”
One case the commission specifically focused on involved the judge’s conduct 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 Hollingsworth informed the court that 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 for theft and battery and 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 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 Nov. 23, Judge Young signed off on facts that included a point that 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 the cases had been argued 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.”
Though Judge Young didn’t file an answer to the charges, his agreement affirms the accuracy of the past conduct and those related charges against him. Two of the four counts brought against Judge Young were dismissed, and the agreement upheld counts I and II that delved into multiple Rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct: Rule 1.1 that requires judges to comply with the law; Rule 1.2 that requires judges to uphold the integrity of the judiciary and maintain high standards; Rule 2.2 that requires judges to be fair and impartial; Rule 2.3(A) requiring judges to not be biased or prejudiced; Rule 2.8(B) requiring judges to be patient, dignified, and courteous to lawyers and litigants; and Rule 2.11(A) mandating a judge recuse him or herself if a personal bias or prejudice exists.
In reaching this disciplinary agreement, the judicial commission pointed out that Judge Young has not had any prior misconduct record and he cooperated fully with this investigation. He served as a commissioner presiding over the county’s expedited court from 1995 to 2000 and has been on the bench since 2001. Judge Young presided over the drug court through 2008.
But in the past year, the judge’s conduct has caused uproar in the legislature, legal community, and general public. A federal lawsuit filed late last year accused the Criminal 13 judge of instituting a policy allowing defendants who come before his court and are found guilty to be fined up to an additional $500 just for challenging their tickets. That suit also detailed how the judge closes proceedings to the public. It has been remanded to state court and remains pending, but that litigation prompted outrage from the General Assembly and prompted the statutory changes targeting Judge Young – setting a series of maximum fines within the $500 limit under state law for moving violations that are Class C infractions, including speeding in regular zones and violations at stop signs and lights. The law now takes into account a person’s history of contesting tickets, and it will allow higher fines depending on the individual’s record of unsuccessful attempts on fighting tickets in court.
On top of this discipline, Judge Young faces civil penalties from that case. The Marion Superior Executive Committee has told Indiana Lawyer that it has not discussed reassigning Judge Young from the traffic court.•