March 6, 2013
Judicial Standards Commission files
complaint against Judge Tillett
By SANDY SEMANS ROSS
North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission has filed a complaint
against Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett based on its formal
investigation conducted last year.
The complaint alleges that
Tillett stepped outside the boundaries of his authority when he took
steps to try to remove both Kill Devil Hills Police Chief Gary Britt
and District Attorney Frank Parrish from their respective offices. His
actions, states the complaint, violate Canons 1, 2A, 2B and 3A of the
North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct.
actions, by the totality of the circumstances surrounding these
allegations, constitute willful misconduct and conduct prejudicial to
the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into
disrepute in violation of NCGS 7A-376(b) and 7A-377."
7A-376(b) states: "Upon recommendation of the Commission, the
Supreme Court may censure, suspend, or remove any judge for willful
misconduct in office, willful and persistent failure to perform the
judge's duties, habitual intemperance, conviction of a crime involving
moral turpitude, or conduct prejudicial to the administration of
justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute. A judge who is
suspended for any of the foregoing reasons shall receive no
compensation during the period of that suspension. A judge who is
removed for any of the foregoing reasons shall receive no retirement
compensation and is disqualified from holding further judicial office."
NCGS 7A-377 outlines the procedure for filing a complaint and the process that follows.
alleged actions that are the focus of the complaint began in April 2010
after Tillett’s son had an encounter with Kill Devil Hills police
officers. No charges were filed, but it appears that the judge took
issue with the officers who handled the incident.
As a result,
according to the complaint, Kill Devil Hills Town Attorney Dan Merrell
-- whom Tillett is quoted as referring to as a "good friend"- -
requested that Kill Devil Hills Police Chief Gary Britt, Deputy
Police Chief Dana Harris, Mayor Ray Sturza and Town Manager Debra Diaz
attend what Merrell referred to as a "venting session."
that meeting, according to the complaint, Tillett complained about the
detainment of his son as well as other incidents involving Kill Devil
Also at the meeting, Tillett allegedly said that
"the law is what the superior court judge says it is in North
Carolina." According to affidavits of town employees provided as part
of a related legal action, Tillett's comment was in response to Britt,
who defended his officers, saying that they comply with the law and the
The complaint also states that Tillett
warned that the town officials needed to address his complaints or that
he would "take care of it for them."
A year later, Tillett
allegedly received complaints from Kill Devil Hills police officers,
and he instructed them on how to properly file them with his office.
letter to Britt and copied to Diaz, stated that Tillett had received
"complaints of professional misconduct" against Britt and that he would
act appropriately "in accord with statutory and/or inherent authority."
An almost verbatim letter was later sent to Assistant Town Manager
Three days after sending the letter to Britt,
Tillett began conversations with District Attorney Frank Parrish about
filing a petition for removal of the chief.
to the complaint, continued to push Parrish to take action on the
petition, although the district attorney expressed reservations about
the validity of such action. Finally, in September 2011, the district
attorney produced a draft petition which Tillett told him to share with
Patricia Holland, the attorney hired to represent the chief, with the
message, "the chief will resign or else."
Within a week,
Tillett issued an order demanding the personnel files of several Kill
Devil Hills employees including Britt and Assistant Town Manager Shawn
Murphy. There was no legal action prompting the order and no hearing.
The complaint states Tillett contacted Merrell and sought his consent
on behalf of the town to waive a hearing on the order, which the town
attorney granted without seeking input from town or police
According to the complaint, Tillett
stated that the files were to be copied and delivered to him "for an in
camera review, for the protection of integrity of information, to
prevent alteration, spoliation, for evidentiary purposes and/or for the
disclosure to other appropriate persons as directed by the Court."
Neither the district attorney, nor the town, nor any of the complaining police officers requested the order.
[Tillett] and Merrell colluded upon which personnel files to include in
the order and, and Respondent claims that he rejected suggestions from
Merrell to include a demand for the files of other town employees...,"
states the complaint.
Tillett required that all copies of his order be returned to him.
Devil Hills Town Clerk Mary Quidley protested the action because it
would leave the town with no paperwork to show why the files were
copied and removed. As a compromise, Tillett allowed the town to retain
one copy of the order in a sealed envelope with Merrell's and Quidley's
signatures across the seal. The order remains sealed, although in a
related court action, a Court of Appeals opinion noted that the order
was not legal because its issuance did not provide due process.
the order specifically demanded copies of the personnel files of Britt
and Murphy, those records were not connected to any of the charges of
record-tampering in the officers' complaints.
In September 2011,
after Parrish informed Tillett that the North Carolina Department of
Justice had reviewed the complaints and found them to have no cause for
the removal of the chief, Tillett responded that the Attorney General's
office doesn't say what the law is, instead, he is quoted as saying
that he and Judge Milton Fitch would determine what the law was.
also took exception to Parrish's stance that the chief had been placed
on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation by the
League of Municipalities and thus Parrish would wait for the findings
of that investigation before taking any action.
Tillett informed the district attorney that they needed to meet because
of complaints that had been filed against Parrish. Also attending that
meeting was Assistant District Attorney Nancy Lamb. At Tillett's
request, a deputy was placed outside the door of the meeting room,
apparently with the purpose of having Parrish arrested for contempt.
the meeting, Tillett again pushed for Parrish to file the petitions for
removal of the chief, and told the district attorney that he wasn't
sure what he was going to do about the complaints filed against him.
was ordered to turn the issue of filing the petition against Britt over
to Lamb. The complaint states that at first Lamb was inclined to file
the petition but after studying the matter and after a requested review
of the matter by North Carolina School of Government found no basis to
remove the chief, Lamb decided against filing. The complaint also
states that Lamb found inconsistencies in the officers' complaints.
to multiple sources, in the weeks leading up to that meeting, on two
occasions meetings were held that included sheriffs and clerks of
courts from throughout the district. At those meetings called by
Tillett, attendees were asked to voice their complaints and concerns
about how the district attorney's office was handling court issues.
Multiple sources stated that they were uncomfortable and that they
feared not providing information. The sources asked to remain anonymous
due to fear of retribution.
In January 2012, at Tillett's
request, Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch issued an order that would
allow any grievances or complaints from Kill Devil Hills police
officers to be sent to Tillett, thus bypassing the town's grievance
policies. There was no legal action or hearing held previous to
issuance of the order. That order has since been found to be invalid by
the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Also that month, Tillett
forwarded to Judge Alma Hinton a petition of removal of the district
attorney, a draft order of contempt against the district attorney, and
a draft order of removal. According to the complaint, Hinton also was
sent other materials but stated that she didn't consider any of it
because the statute allows only consideration of the petitions. Hinton
did not take steps to remove Parrish.
Tillett has 20 days from
issuance of the complaint on Feb. 18 to file a response. If he
chooses to dispute the charges and participate in a hearing before the
Judicial Standards Commission, the date of the hearing will be set at
least 60 days after he responds to allow time for discovery. Or,
according to JSC rules, he can stipulate to the charges, and at that
time, an agreement may be reached as to the outcome, such as a public
reprimand or referral to the North Carolina Supreme Court for possible
censure or removal from office.
As of March 6, a response from Tillett had not been filed.
Attorneys representing the parties involved could not be reached for comment.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
to read the entire The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission
complaint that was filed on Feb. 18 against Resident Superior Court
Judge Jerry Tillett.