The rumor is true! Misbehaving judges sometimes face consequences for their actions. Well, they do if their behavior is too egregious and widely publicized, anyway.
And so it is that Lewis E. of West Virginia. Goldston resigned from the bench after being publicly called out, chastised and threatened with impeachment for behaving more like a Bronze-Age chieftain than you might expect from a member of the US judiciary. It’s a good start to impose some boundaries on behavior.
“On Tuesday, West Virginia Family Court Judge Louise Goldston retired from her post amid a legislative push to impeach her for violating West Virginia’s rights,” the Institute for Justice announced last week. “The resolution impeaching Goldston specifically noted that the judge was leading a warrantless search of the home of Institute for Justice (IJ) client Matt Gibson. Despite his retirement, Matt and IJ will continue their case against Goldston.”
In March 2020, Goldston led an impromptu field trip to Gibson’s home to resolve a post-divorce dispute between Gibson and his ex-wife, who alleged that Gibson still owned some of his property. There, Goldston ordered a warrantless search of the home, refused Gibson’s request that he recuse himself, and ordered him to stand by while officers trashed the place. While Gibson was forbidden to record the proceedings, he secretly recorded some audio, a neighbor took video from outside, and a bailiff at the scene also made an audio recording.
Details of the case were covered by 2020’s Chris Dickerson West Virginia Record, which documents legal matters. Goldston faced disciplinary action on charges of abiding by the law, trust in the judiciary, avoiding abuse of office, impartiality and fairness, external influence, competence, diligence and cooperation, and extrajudicial activities in general.
“Goldston admitted that he failed to inform Gibson of the purpose of the home visit and did not give him an opportunity to object,” Dickerson added. “He also said he thinks it’s right to go to litigants’ homes. In fact, he said he’s done it 11 times in different cases over the years.”
She was not alone. Last summer, while denying Goldston’s claim of judicial immunity (really rare; worth it), Bailiff Jeff McPeek and Deputy Bobby Stump, who are being sued, testified that these official home invasions are fairly common in local court. .
“The record raises a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Raleigh County Commission had the necessary municipal policy to permit officers to participate in the home searches that are challenged here,” wrote U.S. District Judge Frank Volk.
A year after a West Virginia court had already condemned Goldston, as noted by civil rights attorney John Bryan, who represented Gibson.
Nor was Goldston’s fate over. The judge’s high-handed courtroom antics drew the attention of the press and then the West Virginia state legislature. In January, lawmakers moved to impeach Goldston (a three-time president of the West Virginia Family Court Judicial Association who was serving his worst tenure on the bench since 1994) for “violating the constitutional civil rights of West Virginia citizens, constitutional separation of powers, incompetence, dereliction of duty and Violations of certain high crimes and misdemeanors.”
The resolution was sponsored by 11 members of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Wisely, Goldston decided that now was an opportune moment to find a non-judicial pursuit to which to devote his energies.
He might be taking some friends with him.
“And as of today, I discovered this breaking news: Two additional West Virginia family court judges have also been indicted for their part in conspiring to help Judge Goldston avoid disciplinary action,” attorney Bryan wrote on February 1.
It seems that Family Court Judge Diana R. Rock and Glen R. Stotler went after the work of the people investigating Goldston’s misconduct and other Field trip-prone judge. Now they are also in trouble.
That’s a lot of judges in hot water, which is a rare occurrence. The doctrine of judicial immunity has long shielded judges from the practical consequences of their wrongdoing, so long as those actions are arguably within the scope of their duties.
“As early as 1872, the Court recognized that it is ‘a general principle of the highest importance to the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in the exercise of the authority vested in him, [should] be free to act upon his convictions, without fear of personal consequences to himself,'” according to the US Supreme Court Stump v. Sparkman (1978), a case in which an Indiana judge ordered the sterilization of a mildly handicapped 15-year-old girl.
As the trend of privileging government officials, so has this doctrine.
“The recent expansion of the judge-made exception in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1871, the main vehicle for redress for civil rights violations, exempts state judges from suit for even the most outlandish, corrupt, or judicially abusive statutes.” Robert Craig Waters argues for a 1987 piece Cato Journal. “Over the last decade this ‘doctrine of judicial immunity’ has led to a disturbing series of legal precedents that effectively deny citizens any remedy for injury, embarrassment and wrongful imprisonment caused by wrongful judges.”
But Goldston and friends pushed their luck so far that they eventually found the outer limits of their colleagues’ instincts.
“Judicial immunity is reserved for judicial acts, and searching someone’s home is not a judicial act,” the Institute for Justice noted regarding the current case. “Just as police officers cannot act like judges, judges cannot act like police officers. The trial court correctly recognized this principle and denied Goldston judicial immunity for his actions.”
Importantly, the case also defines the limits of the public’s and lawmakers’ patience with judicial misconduct. Judges can cover for each other so far; Something is bound to pay when high-handed behavior infuriates those accused in the justice system.
That still gives the judges an awful lot of leeway. But, after the Goldston case, it appears that judges can’t tear down our houses on their own.