The 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.
“Respondent’s 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.”
NCGS 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.
The 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.”
During that meeting, according to the complaint, Tillett complained about the detainment of his son as well as other incidents involving Kill Devil Hills police.
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 U.S. Constitution.
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.
A 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 Shawn Murphy.
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.
Tillett, according 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 department officials.
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.
“Respondent [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.
Kill 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.
Although 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.
Tillett 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.
In December, 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.
During 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.
Parrish 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.
According 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
Click here to read the entire The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission complaint that was filed on Feb. 18 against Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett.