A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge was recently suspended for three months without pay, after the Alabama Court of the Judiciary panel determined that she had broken the state's canon of judicial ethics in her role as a family law judge.
As our Birmingham divorce lawyers understand it, the allegations pertained to orders that Judge Dorothea Batiste gave to have parties or witnesses in divorce cases incarcerated without offering them any bail. These orders were reportedly given before these folks had a chance to defend themselves.
We can't speak to the validity of the allegations, beyond what the judiciary court's investigation found. The nine-judge panel unanimously reached its decision, and also ordered the judge to attend the National Judicial College in Nevada this fall, as well as another higher-level judicial training course, as agreed upon by her and the chief judge in the circuit.
The court is also expected to issue a formal reprimand, which will be published in the newspaper, and Batiste will have to pay a fine to cover the costs associated with the case.
The 38-page decision came at the close of a three day trial.
Batiste had held litigants or witnesses in contempt of court for things like failure to appear or violating other court orders. This in itself would not have necessarily been an issue, but for the fact that in doing so, she allegedly failed to file a written contempt petition explaining the essential facts, set a hearing on the contempt charge or properly notify the contemnor. All of this is required under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as Rule 70A of the Alabama Revised Civil Procedure, as well as due process clauses in the state constitution.
Additionally, Batiste reportedly denied bail to those who had been arrested for contempt. This was done through expressly providing writs of attachment indicating those individuals could not be released on bond. However, with the exception of a few capital criminal offenses, Alabama's Constitution guarantees that a person who is arrested must be provided a reasonable bail amount.
The panel found that the judge's conduct revealed a "cavalier disregard" for the constitutionally-protected rights of those arrested.
In all, Batiste had ordered six individuals arrested for failure to appear. Of those, one served three days behind bars. Another served nearly two weeks. The others had their contempt orders removed before law enforcement caught up with them.
Specifically, the panel found Batiste guilty of failing to:
- Observe high standards of conduct;
- Respect and comply with the law;
- Avoid prejudicial conduct;
- Maintain faithfulness to the law and uphold professional competence in it;
- Accord every person the full right to be heard according to the law.
Attorneys for Batiste said at worst, this was a simple, good-faith mistake and she in no way acted out of malice. They have also alleged that the allegations arose following allegations of sexual harassment against the former presiding chief court judge, who is also of a different political affiliation.
She could have received up to 10 months of suspension for these actions. Alternatively, the court could have decided to remove her from the bench.
Such cases are rare. In fact, only 43 judges have been called to face the commission over the course of the last four decades. During that time, a total of seven judges have been removed from the bench.
Some legal analysts expressed concern that the decision might result in a "chilling effect" on Alabama family courts, if judges from around the state fear this kind of disciplinary action for exercising efforts to hold witnesses or litigants accountable for violating court orders to appear.
If you are seeking a divorce in Birmingham, contact Birmingham Family Law Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Dorothea Batiste suspended without pay for 90 days for violating canons of judicial ethics, July 31, 2013, By Kent Faulk, Al.com