Bigger Judges Attacking Littler Judges
Posted by kswisher on Sunday, January, 15, 2012
We rarely see the use of one very scary weapon to keep a trial judge in line — indirect criminal contempt. The Supreme Court of the United States Virgin Islands, however, recently used it. After a trial judge refused to follow the supreme court’s mandate, criticized the accompanying opinion, and recused himself from the case, the supreme court ordered a show cause hearing. Even though the special master who then presided over that hearing recommended that the trial judge be acquitted on all counts, the supreme court — i.e., the same court that was repeatedly criticized by the trial judge in his allegedly offensive recusal order — disagreed, found him in contempt, and set a sentencing date. Although the trial judge’s recusal order did contain overly critical language, the supreme court’s acts are questionable as a matter of due process, cf. Mayberry v. Pennsylvania, 400 U. S. 455, 465-66 (1971); In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 137 (1955), and dangerous to decisional judicial independence (insofar as much of the supreme court’s decision is based on the language in the trial judge’s published order; contempt decisions involving only the act of failing to follow a superior court’s clear order are obviously less problematic). Perhaps the justices should have recused themselves, or at a minimum, given the judge one warning.
Hopefully, this weapon will continue to be a rarity. For the supreme court’s opinion, click here; and for the trial court’s order that offended the supreme court justices enough to impose a criminal conviction on the trial judge, click here.