If one reads the comments on the Charleston Post and Courier’s web site regarding the Judicial Merit Selection Commission’s preliminary decision that Judge F.P. Segars-Andrews is unqualified to remain a family court judge because of her handling of a divorce case in which there was a business relationship between her husband’s law partner and one of the litigant’s attorneys, one hears from what appears to be a number of disgruntled litigants or friends and spouses of disgruntled litigants. One of them even quotes from my blog criticizing family court judicial decision-making for failing to apply what I believe are the standards necessary to give family court orders legitimacy.
One can further read the snarky but accurate comment of family court colleague D. Dusty Rhoades, who correctly notes that it’s not surprising the local family court bar would rally around an embattled judge. “It’s a no-lose deal for any attorney because you can curry favor with a judge in question so that if they win, you can hope that’s going to carry over to better treatment. And if they lose, there’s no retribution,” Rhoades said. “I call it ‘Not a Moment in Courage.’”
Any family court judge is going to collect disgruntled litigants, who blame their woes on the judge who heard their case. Thus the dichotomy between the general public’s vitriol (or at least the section of the general public most inclined to publicly comment) and the family court bar’s public support is expected. In this instance, I believe the local bar is correct in its support of Judge Segars-Andrews.
As someone who has blogged critically about our judiciary on occasion, I would hope I might have some credibility when I write that what is happening to Judge Segars-Andrews is, from what has been reported to date, inexplicable. Not only is she being found unqualified for making a decision that an ethics professor, the Court of Appeals and the Judicial Disciplinary Committee have all sanctioned but, from my reading on of the issue, it appears the complaining litigant may have sandbagged her and the opposing party before raising this conflict issue.
As I understand the chronology of events, Judge Segars-Andrews had heard the Simpson divorce case and issued a preliminary memo ruling when Mr. Simpson’s attorney first raised the issue of a potential conflict. One key piece of information that I have never seen reported is when Mr. Simpson and his attorney first became aware of this conflict.
I find it improbable that they first became aware of this potential conflict immediately after Judge Segars-Andrews issued her memo ruling. If one assumes that they had been aware of this potential conflict prior to Judge Segars-Andrews issuing her ruling, a dangerous precedent is being set by the Judicial Merit Selection Commission’s actions.
Assume that an attorney or litigant is aware that a judge has a potential conflict. That person could keep this information hidden until after the judge issues a ruling. If the judge issues a favorable ruling, that potential conflict is never revealed. If the judge issues an unfavorable ruling, the litigant or attorney then raises the conflict. Even if the Judicial Merit Selection Commission ultimately finds Judge Segars-Andrews qualified, its recent actions are going to have a chilling effect on judges facing such an issue: they will uniformly recuse themselves. Thus, because of the Judicial Merit Selection Commission’s actions, any litigant or attorney who becomes aware of a conflict is now better off failing to raise the conflict until and unless the ruling goes against them, while sandbagging the court and the opposing party. This essentially allows litigants aware of potential conflicts to go to trial with the ability to capitalize on a favorable result but have the judge immediately recuse him or herself if the result in unfavorable. Such system-gaming is unjust and inefficient but is the practical result of the Judicial Screening Committee’s actions. Given this concern, I am unclear as to why Judge Segars-Andrews even feels the need to publicly apologize for her decision to rule on the Simpson divorce.
There are a few family court judges whom I would not publicly support if the Judicial Merit Selection Commission determined them unqualified (though not nearly as many as I think were unqualified when I began practicing family law sixteen years ago); Judge Segars-Andrews isn’t one of those judges. While I have sometime disagreed with her rulings, I have never believed her rulings to be based on anything other than her honest views regarding the law and the facts. Further, she is one of the family court judges most committed to the improvement of justice. It sets a very dangerous precedent for the Judicial Merit Selection Commission to challenge her credentials for the reason it is doing so.