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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Durham Judge James Hill should receive public reprimand, say judicial watchdogs

Posted by on Wed, Jul 15, 2015 at 10:57 AM

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After declaring from the bench that two parents in a child-custody dispute were “acting like idiots," Durham District Judge James Hill should be publicly reprimanded, according to the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission.

In court filings that were recently made public, the commission declared that Hill’s actions constituted conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute. Hill agreed to accept the commission’s recommendation of a public reprimand. That official sanction must come from the N.C. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to consider the case in early September.

On Aug. 7, 2014, Hill chastised the two parents in his courtroom—RiShawna and Collin Morrison—making reference to their 3-year-old’s conception and labeling the local jail as the “Durham County Bed and Breakfast.” He also held Mrs. Morrison in contempt of court and issued a 30-day detention order without offering a chance to appeal, in violation of civil and criminal procedure.

Hill’s order helped provoke a courtroom melee that required nine sheriff’s deputies to respond, as Hill retired to his chambers. The ruckus was captured on a video that went viral across the country—a factor that weighed into the commission’s recommendation. We broke the story last fall.

Among Hill’s comments that day:

—"Y'all the one that crawled into bed and had sex and made that baby. He didn't ask to be born."
—"I could care less about the two of you."
—"I better not hear either of you saying anything negative about the other party or y'all gonna get a little trip to the Durham County Bed and Breakfast for contempt of court. And there is no appeal, you stay until I say you get out."

Reserved for “minor” instances of misconduct, a public reprimand is one of five official sanctions for North Carolina judges. It represents the second-lowest level of severity, after a letter of caution. Harsher disciplines include a censure (in cases where the Supreme Court finds “willful” misconduct), suspension and removal from the bench.

The Supreme Court issued its most recent—and only other—public reprimand against a judge this past January. Prior to a 2013 change in the law, which authorized North Carolina’s high court to issue public reprimands, the Judicial Standards Commission issued an average of a little less than three public reprimands per year since 2007.

The commission launched an investigation into Hill’s actions last November, and held a disciplinary hearing in April. In its May 6 recommendation, the commission determined that Hill exhibited a failure to remain patient, dignified and courteous; made inappropriate comments; misstated the law when threatening future contempt proceedings; and improperly exercised his contempt powers, thereby denying multiple parties their fundamental rights of due process.

“In a raised voice and sharp tone, Respondent proceeded to lecture both Mr. and Mrs. Morrison,” the commission ruled. “During this soliloquy, Respondent made several inappropriate comments including repeatedly and loudly chastising the parties that they were acting like idiots.”

The commission also took issue to Hill’s usage of “Durham County Bed and Breakfast” terminology. His suggestion that Mrs. Morrison could not appeal her contempt order “is a gross misstatement of the law,” the commission added.

In an interview with commission officials, Hill agreed that his behavior was inappropriate, and that he “shouldn’t have said” certain statements.

The commission balanced its recommendation by citing Hill’s “good reputation in his community,” noting that he scored well above average in his most recent Judicial Performance Evaluation. His actions, the commission ruled, “appear to be isolated.” The commission took him at his word when he said he sincerely had the best interest of the child in mind.

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