Federal judges use disciplinary law to `weed out bad apples'

For the most part, federal judges are like relatives: You're stuck with them for life. But unlike a bad relative, a bad judge - even with life tenure - can be removed from office if impeached and convicted of treason, bribery, or other ``high crimes and misdemeanors.''

Moreover, Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, seeing an increase in complaints against federal judges, in 1981 fashioned a judicial mechanism to discipline judges whose alleged impropriety did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense.

It is under this Judicial Conduct and Disabilities Act that colleagues of Florida Judge Alcee L. Hastings brought a complaint after his acquittal by a jury.

Under the law, individuals may file a complaint against a federal judge with the chief judge of the court in which the judge serves. If the complaint appears to have merit, the chief judge must appoint a special committee to investigate the accusations on behalf of the judicial council governing the circuit. Based on the outcome, the council has the power to levy public or private censure against a judge.

``Say, for instance, a judge is found to be drunk on the bench,'' says Robert Fiedler, legislative and public affairs officer for the Administrative Office of the US Courts. ``The council could issue a public reprimand of the judge, [though] usually they try to do it privately, to really try and work on the guy.''

Mr. Fiedler says the council could order the judge to undergo alcohol rehabilitation, certify the judge as disabled and have him suspended from hearing cases, or ask him to resign.

One administrator says that, when the law was first enacted, the judges ``weren't too crazy about it.'' But now, Fiedler says, they ``welcome the opportunity to have a reasonable system to weed out bad apples who taint them.''

The circuit council may recommend that a judge be impeached when it turns a case over to the Judicial Conference of the United States - the ``congress of the judiciary.'' If its members concur that impeachment may be warranted, they send the case to the House of Representatives.

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