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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Akron Judge Receives Public Reprimand

The Ohio Supreme Court today publicly reprimanded a judge serving on the Akron Municipal Court for her conduct related to the 2012 arrest of a lawyer who practiced in her courtroom.

In the 5-2 decision, the court determined that Judge Joy Malek Oldfield violated two judicial conduct rules and one professional conduct rule, but rejected an argument from the Disciplinary Counsel that Oldfield violated an additional judicial conduct rule. The Disciplinary Counsel filed the complaint charging the judge.

In February 2012, Oldfield and her husband attended an evening event that lasted into the next morning. Oldfield’s husband asked Catherine Loya, the public defender assigned to the judge’s courtroom, to drive Oldfield home, and he left.

The judge and Loya left the party sometime after 1 a.m. and stopped in a shopping center parking lot. A police officer pulled up and asked them for identification. Two more police officers arrived soon after. When Loya refused to do field sobriety tests, she was arrested and taken to the police station. Oldfield asked one of the officers to take her to the station to be with Loya. During some of her interactions with the police, Oldfield mentioned that she was a judge.

At the station, Loya’s driving privileges were immediately suspended. An officer then drove both Loya and Oldfield to the judge’s house. Loya stayed at Oldfield’s house for three nights until she was permitted to drive again. For the next two weeks, Oldfield presided over 53 cases in which Loya represented clients.

In today’s majority opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that the court agreed with the state disciplinary board that the judge violated two judicial rules stating that judges must act in ways that promote public confidence in the judiciary, avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, and disqualify themselves from proceedings in which their impartiality might be questioned. The court also determined that the judge engaged in conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

Despite an objection from the Disciplinary Counsel, the court also agreed with the board’s recommendation to dismiss the alleged violation of Judicial Conduct Rule 1.3, which reads: “A judge shall not abuse the prestige of judicial office to advance the personal or economic interests of the judge or others, or allow others to do so.”

“Our review of the record supports the findings of the panel and the board,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “[T]he [board’s] panel concluded that the evidence was contradictory and that the record, taken as a whole, did not produce ‘a firm conviction’ that Judge Oldfield used her judicial title to influence the officers to accord her or Loya special treatment or that her conduct gave the appearance that she was using her title for that purpose. We find that the panel reviewed the record using an objective standard to determine whether Judge Oldfield’s conduct created an appearance of impropriety, i.e., whether her behavior would create, in reasonable minds, a perception that she was improperly using her position to gain favor. We therefore overrule [the Disciplinary Counsel’s] objections ….”

In determining the appropriate sanction, the court considered Oldfield’s failure to disqualify herself from more than 50 cases in which Loya was representing defendants to be an aggravating factor. But the court also noted the judge’s lack of any prior disciplinary record, her open disclosure and cooperative attitude in the disciplinary hearings, and her good character and reputation. Based on these circumstances, Oldfield’s conduct, and court precedent, the majority ruled to publicly reprimand the judge.

Joining Justice Kennedy’s opinion were Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith L. French, and William M. O’Neill. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor dissented in part in an opinion joined by Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger.

In her opinion, Chief Justice O’Connor agreed with the majority that Oldfield violated two judicial rules and one professional conduct rule and concurred in the sanction. However, the chief justice dissented from the dismissal of Jud.Cond.R. 1.3.

“Importantly, Judge Oldfield’s first mention of her status as a judge to the officers was gratuitous and, contrary to the majority’s characterization, more than a mere ‘remark[],’” she wrote. “During the arrest, Officer Garner asked a ‘yes or no’ question — whether Judge Oldfield was a lawyer. Judge Oldfield testified that she responded, ‘Yeah, actually, I’ve been an attorney for some time and now I’m a judge.’ Judge Oldfield acknowledged that she could have responded truthfully in a number of alternative ways, including by offering simply that she was licensed to practice law. The specific mention of her judgeship in response was not solicited or required, nor should it have been offered. Indeed, it served only one purpose: to make sure that the officer knew that she was a judge.”

In addition, the judge continued to insert herself into Loya’s arrest and booking at the police station, Justice O’Connor noted.

“I find that the evidence as a whole establishes that a reasonable person would believe that Judge Oldfield abused the prestige of her office to advance her and Loya’s interests,” she concluded. “Therefore, I would sustain [the Disciplinary Counsel’s] objection to the board’s dismissal of the Jud.Cond.R. 1.3 allegation and would find that Judge Oldfield violated the rule.”

2013-1623. Disciplinary Counsel v. Oldfield, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-2963.

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