Preserving Our High Judicial Standards: The Commission on Judicial Conduct

Our Administration of Justice Section has done impressive work this year studying judges and the justice system.  Following the BBA’s successful and enlightening Bench-Bar Conversation on Judicial Evaluations a few months ago, and its sponsorship of New England Law Review’s annual fall symposium, “Benchmarks: Evaluating Measurements of Judicial Productivity,” the Section turned its attention to the Massachusetts Commission on Judicial Conduct (“CJC”), inviting director Howard Neff to speak at its monthly meeting.

Neff gave an extremely informative and comprehensive look at what exactly the CJC does and how it operates.  The CJC is a state agency that reviews complaints made against state court judges.  Neff’s overarching message supports what we already know – that Massachusetts has a great judiciary.  He repeatedly stressed that the large majority of filed cases have no merit and that justices rarely required discipline.  However, the CJC is equipped to handle any circumstances.  Here are some facts about the CJC:

  • Made up of 9 people – 3 judges appointed by the SJC, 3 lawyers appointed by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, and 3 lay persons appointed by the Governor
  • Receives hundreds of complaints each year and over 90% of the cases within its jurisdiction – cases involving judicial misconduct or disability – are dismissed after investigation

Much like a lawsuit, CJC cases start with a complaint (for a helpful procedural flowchart click here).  Proceedings begin when the CJC receives or initiates a complaint.  Any person may file a complaint and there is no formal process for complaint filing – a letter suffices and it can be done anonymously.  All proceedings of the CJC prior to the filing of formal charges are confidential.  CJC Director Howard Neff personally reviews every single complaint.

If a complaint sets forth specific facts that, if true, would constitute misconduct or disability, the case is docketed either for preliminary inquiry (if it is more than a year old, submitted anonymously, or suspected to be frivolous or unfounded) or for investigation.  Once docketed for investigation, the judge is sent notice of the complaint and its status, and experienced CJC staff attorneys look further into the complaint.  They can communicate with the complainant, contact witnesses, obtain audio records, and request documentary evidence.  At the end of an investigation, the CJC has four options:

  • Vote to dismiss the complaint (with or without concern)
  • Vote to propose to the judge that the complaint be resolved through an Agreed Disposition.  Largely remedial in most cases, this resolution can include an agreement to a period of monitoring and/or conditions on the judge’s conduct including counseling or mentoring.
  • When the CJC and judge cannot agree on a resolution, the case is referred to the SJC for a final decision.  The SJC can impose harsh sanctions (public reprimand, censure, suspension, fines) through the following methods-
      • Vote to propose to the judge that the complaint be resolved through a confidential Rule 13 submission to the SJC.  In this case, the judge waives their right to a formal hearing and both sides agree that the SJC’s decision will be the final disposition of the complaint.
      • Vote to proceed to a Statement of Allegations.  This is a more involved proceeding, much like a law suit that entails the filing of charges and responses with the SJC and a formal hearing.

In sum,  the CJC’s work safeguards the high quality justice we have come to expect in the Commonwealth and their records show that deviance from this high standard is extremely rare. 

- Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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