Judicial officers are scrutinized closely – that’s just part of the job. However, the number of formal complaints against judges in Indiana is increasing.
According to the Indiana Supreme Court’s annual report, 609 complaints alleging misconduct by the judiciary were filed statewide in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Of these complaints, 51 cases were not dismissed without notice.
While the number of pending cases has fluctuated only slightly, the total number of complaints has steadily increased over the past eight years.
A review by Indiana Lawyer found that the total number of complaints of alleged misconduct filed in fiscal year 2021-2022 is the highest since at least fiscal year 2001-2002. Data trends suggest the 609 complaints could be the most ever filed against Indiana judges in a fiscal year.
While filings have increased, the number of undeclared complaints has remained consistently between 30 and 40 over the past 20 years. Typically, Indiana Lawyer found that 75% or more of complaints against law enforcement officers have been summarily dismissed.
Breaking it down further, the number of judges who face actual disciplinary action on complaints remains very small. Of the 51 grievance cases for fiscal year 2021-2022 that were not dismissed summarily, only 8% required investigations or other action.
Technology may have played a role in the increase in complaints over the past two years. In 2020, the Supreme Court allowed complaints against judicial officers to be filed online by completing a form and emailing it to the Judicial Nominating/Qualifications Commission.
After a complaint is lodged, the commission, which meets every two months, reviews it and considers allegations that a judge has breached the code of conduct or professional ethics, has committed willful misconduct in office, or has engaged in conduct detrimental to the administration of justice, is usually inappropriate or repeatedly fails to comply with procedures, according to the Supreme Court. In addition, it has jurisdiction to request the involuntary retirement of a judge with a disability that interferes with the judge’s judicial duties
The JQC itself does not fire, suspend or discipline judges – only the Supreme Court has that power.
Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush said she heard a common sentiment among the justices.
“Judges tell me people are just angry,” Rush said. “You see it in the media – people are just angry at institutions”
National surveys show, at least at the federal level, that overall public trust in the government has fallen and threats against law enforcement officials have increased over the past year.
A Pew Research Center study released in June found that 65% of Americans believe political candidates run for office for personal reasons, while just 20% say they trust the Washington government almost all or half of the time the right time to do the right thing. In addition, only 24% said they were satisfied with the current state of the nation.
Last June, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that the US was in an “elevated threat environment” due to several factors, and it specifically identified security concerns for US Supreme Court justices following the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Calf.
According to the Justice Department, the number of statewide threats against federal judges has largely been steadily increasing since 2012. When Indiana Lawyer asked Indiana federal judges in August if they were facing increasing threats, the answer was no.
Allen Superior Court chief justice Jennifer DeGroote, who has served as a judge since 1999, said she has seen changes in perceptions of the courts.
“Nationwide, and maybe this is even a national trend, the judiciary has been very publicly attacked by unpopular decisions or pressure from politicians, whatever it is,” DeGroote said. “…Most complaints that are received are dismissed without notice, found to be unfounded or not related to a disciplinary action. Often these complaints are made because it’s someone who doesn’t really understand the system and is using it to appeal.
“…It goes straight back to that semblance of impropriety,” DeGroote continued. “Do we have fair and impartial judges? Do you have a different agenda? Are they making the decision in accordance with the rule of law and upholding the integrity of the judiciary in its decision-making? Or have they crossed the line? I just think we’ve seen a lot more attacks on the courts, which will directly impact how public perceptions of our fairness are.”
Fulton Superior Judge Greg Heller, who was elected in 2018, echoed DeGroote.
“I think anyone — you don’t even have to be a judge — would tell you that since 2019 (we) have certainly seen a change in anger towards the population in general,” Heller said. “And I would attribute that to social media and politics, but I can’t say I personally saw or felt that in my courtroom.”
Clark Circuit Court Judge Daniel Moore, who has 30 years of legal experience and has served on the bench on multiple occasions, said he, too, has noticed changes in the courts’ perceptions.
“It seems that people are turning to the courts more to resolve issues that I think would normally be resolved in the legislature — legislation that could be passed in the General Assembly,” Moore said. “But often it ends up with people coming to court thinking, ‘Well, that’s what the law says, but I’ll see if I can convince the judge to go a different route.’ And so people are often angry when they go to court in such cases because the legislation doesn’t help them. And there are some pretty hard feelings.
“…People expect so much from the courts these days — they expect the courts to have most of the answers to every problem in their lives,” Moore continued. “Some people are pretty unhappy when the decision is made… so the anger gets channeled somewhere.”
Per se play a role?
Three of the judges interviewed by Indiana Lawyer said they saw an increase in the number of prose parties in court, which could contribute to the rising number of complaints.
Vanderburgh Chief Justice Les Shively, who took office in 2013 after 32 years as a solicitor, said he saw no major changes in public perception of his magistrates’ court. Instead, Shively surmised that more pro se plaintiffs meant more complaints.
“I think if the number of unrepresented litigants increases, there’s a direct correlation to that,” Shively said. “…Logic tells you that when someone is being represented, they have an attorney for them who communicates with the court and communicates with the client what is going on and how to react to certain decisions. And that has a calming effect, if you will, or keeps things within reason. But when someone does their own thing, so to speak, and really (doesn’t) understand the system and hasn’t (done) too much effort to understand how the system works, they get frustrated.”
DeGroote said complaints were filed against her when she worked as a small claims court judge, but not in her current role. One of the reasons she faced more complaints as a small claims judge may be that more unrepresented litigants appeared before her in that court.
Lake Circuit Judge Marissa McDermott said while correlation is not causation, there appears to be a link between complaints and pro se plaintiffs.
“There’s this unspoken but obvious incentive for attorneys to file a complaint against the judge whose court they practice in,” McDermott said. “But for pro-se plaintiffs, it seems that in general there probably isn’t any incentive. I imagine that pro-se litigants are more likely to complain if they are simply unhappy with the outcome of a case, while attorneys know that is generally not objectionable.”
IL reporter Katie Stancombe contributed to this report.