This afternoon the state Supreme Court finally issued its opinion in the judicial misconduct case involving Justice Annette Ziegler. You can read the opinion here.
The court's decision to publicly reprimand Ziegler is disappointing but not at all surprising. The longer this case dragged on, the more likely it became that the justices were divided on what to do. A reprimand is not the right decision and it is not the proper discipline in this case, but it is all the justices could agree on.
The court used very strong language in describing the clear-cut violations of the state's judicial ethics rules and in condemning Ziegler's handling of the whole mess, but the justices got weak-kneed when it came to disciplinary action. The court leaned heavily on past precedent, which is strange considering that this is an unprecedented case. Never before has a sitting Supreme Court justice been found guilty of judicial misconduct and this is the first time the court has had to discipline one of its own members.
There is a double standard in how the court has disciplined judges and lawyers, as a Democracy Campaign analysis in early January made clear. Lawyers have commonly been suspended, sometimes for misbehavior as seemingly trivial as failing to pay state bar dues on time. Judges, on the other hand, are almost never suspended. The court did not address that double standard in today's ruling; on the contrary, the decision perpetuates the double standard.
It is hard to believe that the public will see a reprimand in this case as anything more than a slap on the wrist. It is equally hard to see how this will do anything to lift the dense cloud cover that is hovering over the Supreme Court thanks to the Ziegler affair and the poisonous Supreme Court elections in each of the last two years.
Confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our courts rests on the public's ability to trust that judges are not on anyone's side. That's why it's so essential that judges not rule on cases when they have a financial stake in one side. Such conflicts of interest need to be taken seriously when they exist. It will be a tough sell for the court to convince the public of its seriousness when a member of the state's highest court gets more lenient punishment for such intolerable behavior than lawyers get when they don't pay their professional dues in a timely fashion.