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When to File an Ethics Complaint Against a Judge

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

Just like lawyers, judges must abide by ethical standards. If a judge has engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the role of the court, then you would be doing the legal professional a favor to call foul.

Recently, Nevada Judge Conrad Hafen handcuffed a defense lawyer in court in order to quiet her down. In the context of this incident, many have been wondering about the pros and cons of calling an ethics complaint against a judge. Is there ever a time when this is the right thing to do?

Public Defender Gets Handcuffed

Here's a quick review of the Nevada incident: defense lawyer Zohra Bakhtary was placed in handcuffs by the judge after she attempted to zealously defend the rights of her client. But one man's "zealous advocacy" can be another man's "back talking."

It all started when Bakhtary's client pled guilty to petit larceny back in late 2015 and was granted a six month suspended sentence on condition that he show up for his May 2016 hearing. He didn't show up on his own accord. So, the judge issued a bench warrant and brought him in. Bakhtary attempted to speak on her client's defense and -- some say foolishly -- attempted to get her word in despite numerous cutoffs by judge Hafen. He eventually took her into custody.


According to Sam Wright at Above the Law, the group Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice filed an ethics complaint against Conrad for his behavior. "Good," says Wright. Paraphrasing him, judges have an obligation to respect the mechanism of the system: lawyers advocate zealously on behalf of their clients and are expected to fight hard for every bit of advantage they can in the name of their client's interests. As jaded as clients may be at mundane cases like non-payment of child support and minor theft cases, they must not run roughshod over the system. Too much is at stake.

Judge Aaron Persky

Let's take a moment to compare Conrad's behavior to another judge whose name is even more known by now: Judge Aaron Persky. Right now, the Bay Area jurist is being excoriated for his decision to sentence Stanford student turned sex-offender 6-months' jail time with six years of probation. The issue is so politically heated now that it would be difficult to carry on an objective conversation about the appropriateness or non-appropriateness of the punishment.

In Hafen's case, it almost seems as if there was a flouting of procedure and muscle flexing. In Persky's case, the conversation has dominated by accusations of misogyny, class-tension, and less by concern for what some have called strict application of the rule of law.

These two cases should be regarded by the public as wake-up calls. Judges matter in our lives and, like it or not, we ought to be more concerned than we are about what roles they play within the criminal justice schema -- especially when we agree with their decisions and politics.

When to File a Complaint

So, when should you file an ethics complaint against a judge? Start by looking up the local rules for when and how to file a complaint. Then consider recent cases like those above. Who knows, by filing a complaint, you may become a local hero and get some free publicity while you're at it.

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