The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission (JSC) has dropped the charges against District 1 Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett in exchange for an acceptance by Tillett of a Public Reprimand.
The Public Reprimand was accepted and signed by Tillett on March 6. The reprimand became final after it was signed by JSC Chairman Jim Martin on March 8.
The reprimand includes the judge accepting and acknowledging the specific findings of improper judicial conduct that were in violation of three the Canons of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct.
He also acknowledged that his actions in attempting to remove Kill Devil Hills Police Chief Gary Britt and District Attorney Frank Parrish from their respective offices were a significant violation of the principles of personal conduct and created a public perception of conflict of interest that brought the judiciary into disrepute.
“Judge Tillett recognizes and admits that his frustration in his dealings with the District Attorney’s Office and his embroilment in the affairs of the police department of the Town of Kill Devil Hills is reasonably perceived as coercive and retaliatory, and is conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. Judge Tillett has expressed his regret for his conduct and assured the Commission that he will exercise caution and restraint in the future,” notes the Public Reprimand.
According to the reprimand, Tillett is prohibited from participating in any hearing or legal proceeding or communicating his opinion or any pertinent facts to any judicial official unless compelled to by subpoena concerning any petition to remove either Britt or Parrish, any Kill Devil Hills police officer or any Kill Devil Hills town officials. He also is prohibited from participation in any matter specific to personnel matters or professional grievances related to the Town of Kill Devil Hills.
If Tillett fails to abide by the terms of the public reprimand, further disciplinary action will be taken by the Judicial Standards Commission.
During the investigation of Tillett’s actions, which was begun on the JSC’s own motion, the reprimand states that over a period of 12 months, investigators interviewed more than 50 witnesses and collected documentary evidence. The interviews and other evidence formed the basis of the charges against him.
In related action, Tillett also filed a petition with the North Carolina Court of Appeals asking that the court hold another hearing after it handed down an opinion that included a side note that indicated that Tillett did not have the authority to issue an order demanding that the town provide him with copies of the personnel records of the police chief, Kill Devil Hills Assistant Town Manager Shawn Murphy and others.
The Appeals Court ruling was in response to an appeal of an order issued by Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch, which stated that police personnel could take their grievances and complaints directly to Tillett, thus bypassing the town’s grievance procedures. According to filings, Fitch issued the order at the request of Tillett.
Both Tillett and Fitch neglected to hold a hearing before issuing their respective orders and there was no legal action before the court that prompted the action. That, stated the Court of Appeals opinion, was a violation of due process in both instances. While the court overturned Fitch’s order, other than the brief mention of Tillett’s, it did not address that one because it was not part of the appeal.
In his petition requesting the additional hearing, Tillett said he needed to tell his side of the story because he understood that the JSC was investigating his actions.
The court refused to re-hear the case because Tillett had no standing because he was not a party in the matter.
The North Carolina Supreme Court was the next stop in the Tillett saga. A petition was filed asking the court to direct the Appeals Court to re-hear the matter. In response to the filings, the town’s attorneys submitted a motion requesting sanctions because the filing on behalf of Tillett broke the court’s rules.
On March 8, Tillett withdrew his petition to the court and agreed to pay the town’s cost related to the action in the Supreme Court.
Click here to read the Public Reprimand of Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett.
And just what is the Judicial Standards Commission?
The North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission was created through an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution in 1973.
The purpose of the commission was first voiced in 1975 by Justice Exum in the case of District Court Judge E.E. Crutchfield, the first judge to be censured by the Supreme Court under the new watchdog agency.
Exum wrote, “A proceeding before the Judicial Standards Commission is neither criminal nor civil in nature. It is an inquiry into the conduct of a judicial officer, the purpose of which is not primarily to punish any individual but to maintain due and proper administration of justice in our State’s courts, public confidence in its judicial system, and the honor and integrity of its judges.”
In the 43 years of its existence, 33 judges have been censured by the Supreme Court based on recommendation of the JSC and nine have been removed from office. The JSC cannot censure or remove judges, only the Supreme Court holds that authority.
Since 2007, 18 Public Reprimands have been filed. Three of those, including Tillett’s, were issued to Superior Court judges, one to a member of the Court of Appeals, and the remaining 14 to District Court judges.
In 2012, a total of 289 complaints were filed against District Court judges who tend to have more cases before them and a large number of domestic litigants, which is the largest category of sources of complaints.
In the same year, there was one complaint filed against a Supreme Court judge, 11 against members of the Appeals Court, and 116 against Superior Court judges.
During a five-year period beginning in 2008, about 11 percent of the complaints led to formal investigations. Less than one percent resulted in Public Reprimands and three-one-thousandth of a percent were sent to the Supreme Court with a recommendation for discipline.
Some complaints included multiple allegations that fall into multiple categories. The largest number of complaints is related to legal/procedural error. The second and third largest are bias and abuse of power, respectively.