Editorial: Fund judicial watchdog agency to protect justice
The government entity that investigates complaints against Michigan's judges is falling behind after an uptick in cases without the funds to meet the demand. The investigation backlog puts the integrity of our judicial system at stake.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Legislature need to make sure the state budget contains enough money for the Judicial Tenure Commission to investigate all of the judges currently accused of misconduct.
The sidelined complaints mean credible accusations of judicial wrongdoing are going ignored and putting justice in jeopardy.
The Judicial Tenure Commission is an independent state agency that evaluates and investigates complaints against judges as well as recommends punishments to the Supreme Court.
While many of the requests for investigating judges don't make it past the preliminary review process, the ones that have merit do and are called “full investigations.” They take time and manpower to carry out effectively.
In 2021, the commission had 37 full investigations more than a year old, up from four in 2017, and the number of those older than three years increased to five from zero.
Lynn Helland, executive director and general counsel for the commission, says he's not sure what sparked an uptick in full investigations, which started around 2017. The cases are also more complicated, he says.
An initial proposal asking the Legislature for additional funds would have allowed the commission to tackle the backlog in three to four years. But now it's asking the Legislature for a bolder $1.5 million, which could erase the backlog by the end of fiscal year 2023.
That amount would allow the commission to hire a full-time paralegal, a full-time attorney and one-time funds for seven contract attorneys and some other expenses, Helland says.
The state should make the two positions on the commission permanent while giving them the one-time grant of funds to clear the backlog with the state’s budget surplus.
Failing to do so has serious implications for the integrity of our judicial system.
The commission released the details of four completed cases in 2020. One judge spoke inappropriately in court, one hid evidence of child abuse, one conducted court without documentation and another failed to disclose personal relationships in cases.
Two have already been punished by the state Supreme Court and two await a decision.
But the Judicial Tenure Commission doesn't publicly release the names of judges who resign or retire before a complaint is publicly filed. While it's good they're no longer serving on the bench, they shouldn't be able to sweep misconduct under the rug.
The people of Michigan deserve to know that their judges are fit to administer justice, and the agency that holds judicial misconduct to account needs to be able to do its job.