A state senator is trying to help a Superior Court judge in his district escape sanctions from the N.C. State Bar, which regulates lawyers in North Carolina.
Sen. Bill Cook, a three-term Republican legislator from Beaufort County, says he thinks Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett shouldn’t have to risk losing his license to practice law because he was already sanctioned by the state Judicial Standards Commission.
The State Bar is basing its disciplinary case against the judge on the same issues that led to a sanction from the Judicial Standards Commission. The judge received a “public reprimand” two years ago for misuse of power in a dispute with the Kill Devil Hills police chief and the county’s district attorney.
Cook said Friday that he filed a bill, Senate Bill 323, to protect Tillett and any judge who finds himself or herself in that situation. He filed the bill Wednesday, two days after the State Bar posted its March 6 complaint against Tillett on its website.
“I read he was already taken to task by the Standards Commission for exactly the same thing that the Bar is trying to hit him with, which in our system is usually considered double jeopardy,” Cook said. “It’s probably a political witch hunt.”
Tillett is the senior judge in a district that covers more than a dozen counties in the northeastern corner of the state, including the senator’s county. Tillett lives in Manteo in nearby Dare County, and has been in office since 1993.
The judge contends that the State Bar doesn’t have the authority to pursue a case against him because disciplinary action against judges is reserved only for the Judicial Standards Commission and the state Supreme Court under North Carolina law. The General Assembly can also impeach judges.
“This is unprecedented what the State Bar is doing, proceeding against a sitting Superior Court judge for identical conduct to what he has already been disciplined by the Judicial Standards Commission,” said Kevin Rust of Raleigh, the judge’s attorney.
A representative of the State Bar declined to comment because it’s a pending case. But the Bar’s records show that the organization has pursued cases against judges at least five times dating back to 1983, although not always after punishment was recommended to the Supreme Court by the Judicial Standards Commission.
In at least one of those recent cases, the state appeals court upheld the Bar’s punishment – which was to strip the judge, who had stepped down, of his law license. The Bar contends that even if a judge has been removed from office, it can still take action that affects the judge’s ability to practice law, including censure, suspension or disbarment.
The Bar can only discipline “attorneys who are practicing law in this state,” Tillett argues in a motion to dismiss the complaint, which he filed Thursday.
“Acting as a judge is not practicing law,” Rust said Friday. “When practicing law, you need to represent someone, or you can represent yourself. But as a judge you are not.”
Tillett’s motion cites two ethics opinions the Bar has issued, in 2013 and 1995, which it contends show the organization acknowledges it doesn’t have jurisdiction over judges. Additionally, the motion says, the Bar’s own website says complaints about judges go to the Judicial Standards Commission.
A public reprimand
Tillett found himself in trouble in 2012 when an investigator for the Judicial Standards Commission launched a yearlong probe.
It began with a grudge between the judge and the chief of the Kill Devil Hills Police Department that had erupted two years earlier. Several days after Tillett’s adult son was approached and questioned by police – he was not charged with a crime, but the reason for the stop has not been made public – the judge, the police chief and town officials met in the judge’s chambers.
Those in the room called Tillett’s demeanor angry and aggressive and said they felt threatened, as he ticked off a list of complaints about the police. At one point, Tillett said, “The law is what the Superior Court judge says it is in North Carolina.” He added that if a judge said the law required someone to stand on their head, then that’s what they would have to do, according to the accusations brought against him.
The judge then tried over the next two years to get the police chief and the district attorney removed from office, at one point even ordering personnel files be delivered to his office, according to the records.
Rust says Tillett chose not to let the Judicial Standards Commission’s case drag out. He admitted that his concern with the police and prosecutor could have been seen as coercive and retaliatory, and he accepted a public reprimand for misuse of power.
But if the State Bar can now use that admission, Rust says, “judges would have no incentive to do anything but fight tooth and nail.”
Cook, who was sworn into office in January by Tillett, said he has heard of several situations similar to Tillett’s.
He said he felt the law needed to be clarified. Asked if he had discussed his bill with the judge, Cook replied, “Not personally.”