Supreme Court Warns Against City, Town Court Judges Assuming Role Of Prosecutor

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February 5, 2019
for IndianaLawyers
A word of discretion was offered to judicial officers Monday when Indiana Supreme Court justices condemned the impropriety of assuming a prosecutor’s duties, a message shared in a disciplinary opinion elaborating on the judicial ban of a former New Haven City Court judge.
The high court gave additional insight into charges filed against then-New Haven City Court Judge Geoffrey L. Robison, who resigned Dec. 26 after he was charged with improperly assuming the duties of a prosecutor and wrongly approving infraction deferrals for juveniles.
Robison, who had served as city court judge since 2000 and was not an attorney, filed and processed infraction tickets without prosecutor approval, improperly used the prosecutor’s signature stamp to execute deferral agreements on infractions, and improperly placed 67 juveniles into an infraction deferral program, according to the Supreme Court’s Monday disciplinary opinion. The latter offense was a violation of Indiana Code section 34-28-5-1(f), but according to the opinion, Robison claimed he was unaware of a change in Indiana law that made minors ineligible for infraction deferral.
In a conditional agreement entered last month, Robison agreed to not perform judicial duties in the future. The New Haven City Council unanimously voted to close the city court at the end of 2018.

The Commission on Judicial Qualifications alleged Robison violated five provisions of the Code of Judicial Conduct, including rules 1.1, 1.2, 2.2, 2.9(A) and 2.12(A). But Robison denied that he committed misconduct, and considering that he is no longer a judge and that his court is now closed, the Supreme Court held that “continued litigation would be an inefficient use of limited judicial resources.”

Even so, the justices said their per curiam opinion was meant to clarify municipal courts’ power to administer infraction cases and infraction deferral agreements while also cautioning judicial officers against the impropriety of assuming the prosecutor’s duties.

“Put simply, trial courts may neither dismiss these deferral cases sua sponte nor use the prosecutor’s signature stamp to administer or execute infraction deferral agreements,” the court wrote. “Either action is an improper assumption of the prosecutor’s distinct role and flouts the Code of Judicial Conduct’s overarching goal of an independent, fair, and impartial judiciary.”

The high court noted Robison is not the first Indiana judge to face such allegations, citing two public admonitions against former Fremont Town Court Judge Martha C. Hagerty, who was admonished for repeatedly engaging, or allowing staff to engage, in ex parte conversations with a traffic infraction litigant and his attorney. It also cited the public admonition of Walkerton Town Court Judge Roger L. Huizenga, admonished for participating in an ex parte conversation with a defendant about the status of her traffic infractions and for assuming the role of the prosecutor when negotiating a resolution to the defendant’s case.

“While municipal courts are created by statute and empowered to decide only certain cases, their status as ‘special courts’ does not absolve them of the duties of a separate but co-equal branch of government,” the justices wrote. “Municipal court judges, like all judges, must endeavor to maintain, preserve, and protect the independence of Indiana’s judiciary, even when administering the lowest-level civil and criminal offenses.”

Disciplinary proceedings relating to Robison’s case were terminated. He will not be assessed costs, as the action was dismissed without a hearing and without a finding of misconduct by the panel of masters.

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