Michigan Supreme Court Censures Judge Dennis Wiley for Ordering Jail for Cursing Woman

On March 26th, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered a public censure of Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley for ordering jail for a woman who cursed in the courthouse in the presence of court staff.

In In re Wiley, Docket No. 148512, the Supreme Court found that Judge Wiley exceeded his lawful authority. In December of 2012, LaRue Ford attempted to pay outstanding license fines and costs in the Berrien County Trial Court. After court staff attempted to explain the fines to Ms. Ford, a disagreement arose over whether Ms. Ford had previously paid all of her outstanding fines and costs.  At some point after that disagreement, Ms. Ford allegedly cursed out loud either at or in front of court staff.  

Judge Wiley overheard court staff talking about the cursing incident and he asked them what happened.  He learned from that conversation that Ms. Ford would be returning to the courthouse soon to pay an outstanding fine.  Judge Wiley told his staff to have Ms. Ford come to his courtroom when she returned. 

A bailiff escorted Ms. Ford to Judge Wiley's courtroom when she returned to the courthouse. The judge arraigned Ms. Ford for contempt of court based soley on his earlier conversation with court staff about the incident.  Judge Wiley did not disqualify himself from hearing Ms. Ford's case, and neither did he disclose that he had had ex parte communications with witnesses in this matter.

Ms. Ford spent that night in jail.  She later posted bond and was released from jail, but Judge Wiley later raised her bond after counsel for Ms. Ford requested an amendment to the bond conditions to allow Ms. Ford to travel to Arizona to maintain her employment as a long-distance trucker.

After several weeks of motion practice by Ms. Ford's attorneys, the Court assigned the case to a different judge and ultimately that judge dismissed the contempt charge against Ms. Ford.

The Supreme Court ordered that

"[t]he standards set forth in Brown are also being applied to the following Judicial Tenure Commission legal conclusions, to which respondent stipulated and which we adopt as our own:

A. Respondent violated the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 3A(1), in that he did not faithfully execute the law and maintain his professional competence when he commenced indirect contempt proceedings based only on unsworn conversations with his staff; and

B. Respondent violated the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 3A(4), in that he received communications regarding Ms. Ford’s conduct from court staff, after the commencement of proceedings, and directed staff to provide the information to the prosecuting attorney and directed staff to prepare affidavits concerning the events of December 4, 2012 and did not advise Ms. Ford’s counsel of these communications.

The Commission also concludes, and we agree, that Respondent’s conduct constitutes:

C. Misconduct in office, as defined by the Michigan Constitution of 1963, as amended, Article 6, § 30, and MCR 9.105;

D. Conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice, as defined by Const 1963, art 6, § 30, and MCR 9.105;

E. Failure to establish, maintain, enforce, and personally observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved, contrary to the Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 1;

F. Irresponsible or improper conduct that erodes public confidence in the judiciary, in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 2A;

G. Conduct involving impropriety and the appearance of impropriety, in violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 2A;

H. Failure to conduct oneself at all times in a manner that would enhance the public’s confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, contrary to the Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 2B; and

I. Conduct that exposes the legal profession or the courts to obloquy, contempt, censure, or reproach, in violation of MCR 9.104(A)(2).

After review of the Judicial Tenure Commission’s decision and recommendation, the settlement agreement, the standards set forth in Brown, and the above findings and conclusions, we ORDER that the Honorable Dennis M. Wiley be publicly censured. This order stands as our public censure."