Former Judge Burge Law License Suspended

On August 13, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended the law license of former Lorain County Common Pleas Court Judge James M. Burge.  Burge was convicted of crimes related to his failure to disclose his interest in office buildings on his financial disclosure forms while sitting on the bench and then assigning paid legal work to attorneys who rented office space from him.

Burge was suspended for one year with six (6) months stayed.  He was also given credit for three (3) months and three (3) weeks that he had served under an interim suspension issued in April 2015 for his convictions for tampering with records and falsification.

The Supreme Court of Ohio deemed the sanction given sufficient since Burge’s misconduct occurred while he was on the bench and he has resigned from the bench.  It believes Burge’s misconduct will not recur.  In Ohio, a judge must have a license to practice law in good standing to maintain his position on the bench.

While a sitting judge, Burge was charged with 12 counts of criminal conduct.  A jury convicted him of three misdemeanor falsification charges and three felony tampering charges.  A visiting judge dismissed the remainder of the charges.  One month later, the felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors.

Burge also made disparaging remarks to convicted criminals appearing before him.  He told one man he “would have paid 50 bucks to give you a beating before you went.”  To another man, he remarked:  “Now if I were to believe you were that stupid, James, I would just have Deputy Motelewski shoot you right now, because I know you’re not going to make it through life.”  In a letter written on court stationery, Burge characterized the proposed bill of a former General Assembly representative as “nothing more than the hobgoblin of a small-minded, mouth-breathing, Tea Party type whose political style and abilities uniquely qualify him to do nothing.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Kennedy’s dissent stated that she would have imposed a two-year suspension with one year stayed for such conduct.

Disciplinary Counsel v. Burge, 2019-Ohio-3205.


Judges Driving Under The Influence

It has, yet again, been a busy week for judicial disciplinary charges this week.

Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Becky Doherty may face further disciplinary action as a result of an OVI case brought against her.  On February 2019, Judge Doherty was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol after she drove a vehicle belonging to an Akron woman off a snowy on-ramp to Interstate 76 eastbound at Route 43 in Brimfield and crashed into a ditch at about 9:15 p.m.  She later pled guilty to the charge, a first-degree misdemeanor.

As a result, on May 20, 2019, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed disciplinary charges against Judge Doherty with the Board of Professional Conduct requesting sanctions against her for violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  She was charged with failure to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary and failure to avoid the appearance of impropriety.  The formal hearing on the matter will occur on October 22, 2019.

Chief Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Joe Caligiuri stated that the sanction on this first offense will likely be a stayed suspension or a public reprimand.

In the meantime, the office of Disciplinary Counsel also filed disciplinary charges against Franklin County Domestic Relations Court Judge Monica Hawkins for her conviction for driving while under the influence of alcohol.  Hawkins was arrested in Pickerington on January 31, 2019, with a blood-alcohol level of .199%, nearly twice the legal limit.  Judge Hawkins informed the arresting officer that she was a judge and said she had not been drinking.  She was later convicted of the charge.  The Office of Disciplinary Counsel charged her with failing to comply with the law and failing to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary, violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.  The charges could result in the suspension of her license to practice law.  A suspension carries a heavy penalty as it means that she would also be suspended from the bench as a requirement for holding judicial office is to be able to practice law in Ohio.


Former Juvenile Judge Jailed

In 2014, former Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter was convicted of a felony for giving her brother, a juvenile court employee, confidential information.  Then Judge Norbert Nadel sentenced Ms. Hunter to 6 months in jail.  Since then, Ms. Hunter has appealed the conviction in both state and federal court.  In May 2019, federal court Judge Timothy Black found that Ms. Hunter had received a fair trial.  He refused to comment on the sentence, which he said was for the state court to decide.

On July 22, 2019, now Judge Dinkelacker ordered Ms. Hunter to begin her 6-month jail sentence.  Chaos erupted in the courthouse as Judge Dinkelacker ordered the deputies to take Ms. Hunter into custody.  Hunter went limp in a deputy’s arms, resulting in her being dragged from the courtroom.  Now retired Judge Nadel stated that Ms. Hunter was convicted by a jury, was unrepentant for her misconduct, and the sentence was a correct one. Hunter supporters claim the conviction was politically motivated due to Ms. Hunter, a Democrat, taking a seat formerly held by a Republican.

On October 21, 2014, Ms. Hunter’s Ohio law license was suspended due to her felony conviction.  A felony suspension is an interim suspension.  Now that all appeals or proceedings have been concluded, Ms. Hunter will undergo disciplinary proceedings to determine the length of her suspension from the practice of law.


Lost Settlement Check = Suspension

On June 5, 2019, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Lorain County Attorney Jeffrey H. Weir, II for losing a client’s settlement check.  Weir received a one-year suspension with 6 months stayed.

The lost check, however, was not the only reason for the suspension.  Both the Office of Disciplinary Counsel and the Lorain County Bar Association filed complaints against Weir based on separate grievances filed with those offices.  The Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Weir on an interim basis when he failed to respond to a third disciplinary complaint not involving either of those matters.

Weir accepted representation of his client to terminate a land sale contract.  The sellers sent Weir a check as a settlement offer.  Because both he and the client believed she was entitled to more funds than the value of the check, they agreed not to cash it.  Later, the client agreed to accept the check as settlement.  Because it was stale, Weir requested a replacement check from the sellers, which he received August 2016.  He then lost the check and did not respond to his client’s inquiries about it in September and October 2016.  In November 2016, he informed his client he had misplaced the check and would request a third check but then stopped all communication with his client.

Weir did not respond to the grievance the client filed against him with the Lorain County Bar Association but did appear at a grievance committee meeting.  He found the lost check in December 2017 and gave it to his client.  When she tried to cash it, the bank dishonored it.  The seller’s attorney said the sellers would not write a third check for the settlement.  The Supreme Court of Ohio agreed with the Board that Weir’s misconduct included losing his client’s settlement check, failing to communicate with her over an extended period of time and then failing to make her whole.  Lorain Cty. Bar Assn. v. Weir, 2019-Ohio-2151, ¶ 16).

The Disciplinary Counsel action involved Weir substituting as counsel for his clients in a lawsuit.  When the court entered judgment against his clients, Weir sued their former counsel for malpractice.  The court dismissed the action as time-barred.  Weir appealed.  The appellee filed a motion to dismiss because the appeal was time-barred.  Weir failed to respond to the motion and the appellate court dismissed the appeal.  The Supreme Court determined that he failed to give competent and diligent representation to his clients. Id. ¶ 19.

As a result of this misconduct, Weir was actually suspended from the practice of law.





Judge Suspended For Attempting To Influence Daughter’s Speeding Ticket

In February, former Scioto County Common Pleas Court Judge William Marshall was suspended for six months following attempts to influence the outcome of his daughter’s speeding ticket.

When a police officer stopped her, Judge Marshall’s daughter telephoned him.  Judge Marshall spoke with the police officer, who, thereafter, issued a speeding ticket to his daughter.  Later Judge Marshall stated:  “There used to be a code in this county — I’m a Judge and he should not have written my daughter a speeding ticket.”  Thereafter, Judge Marshall attempted to discuss the matter with an Assistant Prosecutor assigned to the case.  Feeling uncomfortable, the Assistant Prosecutor asked the City Prosecutor to handle Judge Marshall’s daughter’s case.

About a month later, Judge Marshall requested the presiding magistrate to appoint counsel to his daughter.  He confided to the Magistrate off the record that he disliked the trooper and wanted to get him in trouble.  When the trooper declined to meet with the Judge to discuss the matter as part of a settlement, the Judge called him a vulgar name.

At trial, both the trooper and Judge Marshall testified.  Judge Marshall requested to be considered an expert on the recalibration of police radar due to his employment in 1994 as a city prosecuting attorney.  He stated he went to the academy many times to be taught how the radar equipment worked. He claimed the only way the trooper could prove the accuracy of the radar was to bring the tuning forks into court. He requested that the court delay a decision until after the trooper had done so.

The magistrate was prepared to issue an order; however, the prosecuting attorney requested that she write it but delay releasing it as he had a felony trial before Judge Marshall the following week and he did not want it to be influenced by an adverse decision in his daughter’s traffic case.  The magistrate delayed issuing the opinion.  She found Judge Marshall’s daughter to be a juvenile traffic offender and set a disposition hearing.

Judge Marshall then called the magistrate indicating that she could not rule against his daughter unless there was an expert testifying to the accuracy of the radar equipment. Ultimately, the Judge accused her of questioning his credibility before ending the telephone call. The magistrate announced the decision and imposed court costs and points.

After the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed the Complaint against Judge Marshall, he resigned from office.  Entering into a consent to discipline, Mr. Marshall agreed to violations of several judicial rules, including failing to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary, abusing the prestige of judicial office, and exhibiting bias or prejudice in the performance of his judicial duties.  The Supreme Court of Ohio issued a six-month suspension.



Road Rage Leads To Suspension

Portion of Video

So, we all get angry from time to time.  But if you are a lawyer, your expression can lead to suspension of your law license.  On September 26, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Columbus attorney John Okuley’s license to practice law for one year with six months stayed.

In April 2015, Mr. Okuley became incensed when cyclist Eric Hansen passed his car on the right-hand side of the vehicle.  According to Mr. Okuley, he believed Mr. Hansen hit his car.  According to eyewitness John Bahling, Okuley pulled in front of Hansen and slammed on the brakes.  The cyclist then really did hit his car.  Hansen fell off the bicycle, which was badly damaged.  Being a physician, Bahling stopped to make sure Hansen was not hurt.  Bahling started videotaping the incident and Okuley knocked the phone out of Bahling’s hand, which led to an altercation between the two. A portion of the video is linked above.  Another witness, Walker, described the incident as beginning with intense verbal conflict and ending in a wrestling match.

Okuley claimed he was trying to preserve Bahling’s phone for evidence. Walker and Bahling both testified that Bahling’s phone fell to the ground and Okuley stomped on it.  A responding police officer told Okuley that he could not take another person’s possessions, but Okuley disagreed saying he was allowed to collect evidence.

Okuley was charged with criminal damaging, a second-degree misdemeanor, for damaging Bahling’s phone.  Okuley pleaded not guilty but then left the courthouse on the day of trial without informing the prosecutor or the court.  He was later arrested on a bench warrant.  Okuley was later found guilty and sentenced to a suspended 90-day jail term and ordered to pay restitution to Bahling.

The Supreme Court determined that Okuley violated the attorney ethics rules when he destroyed Bahling’s phone containing potential evidence, lied to the police and left the court prior to trial without informing anyone.

Although the incident did not involve any clients, the Court determined that Okuley, nevertheless, harmed the public by creating a danger on the roadway, acting violently toward Bahling, and lying to the police, the disciplinary investigators and the courts in civil suits brought against him due to the incident. The Supreme Court determined that Okuley did not take responsibility for his misconduct, but he suffered consequences outside the disciplinary system when he was convicted of a crime, was fined, paid court costs, paid restitution and paid a civil suit settlement.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has disciplined an attorney for a road rage incident.  In 2000, Delaware County Municipal Judge Michael Hoague received a stayed suspended for a similar incident.  Witnessing an auto being driven recklessly, Judge Hoague called the Delaware Police and the Ohio State Highway Patrol reporting the make and model of the car and the license number.  He later did his own investigation to determine the owner of the car.  He then wrote her a letter on court stationery informing her that if she wished to avoid possible further action, she must contact the court within a certain period of time.

When the owner and the driver of the vehicle both appeared before him, Judge Hoague met them in the courtroom where they were seated at the defense table and he took the bench.  Judge Hoague threatened criminal prosecution and indicated he would have a talk with the Sheriff’s Department so they had a fuller picture of what he witnessed.  He later tried to contact the couple’s employers.

Judge Hoague was convicted of coercion, a second-degree misdemeanor, regarding the incident.  He later wrote a public letter of apology in the Delaware Gazette.  The Supreme Court determined that Judge Hoague violated Canon 2 of the Code of Judicial Conduct by failing to act in a manner that promoted confidence in the judiciary.  It ordered a six-month stayed suspension of Judge Hoague’s law license.

The bottom line is that no matter how incensed one becomes at another’s conduct, misuse of legal authority can lead to real harm to the lawyer — or judge. As attorneys and judges, our conduct is held to a higher standard.  No doubt because people believe us when we say we can get them in trouble.  Everyone gets angry.  Bullying others, however, can have serious consequences for legal professionals.