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Judge suspended for requiring church attendance as bail condition

By Kim I. Hartman     Jun 19, 2011 in Crime
Jackson - The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled the Commission on Judicial Performance's recommendation of suspension, assessment of court cost and public reprimand for a Justice Court Judge who required church attendance as a condition of bail was appropriate.
Mississippi Justice Court Judge Theresa Brown Dearman was suspended for 30 days this week in Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance v. Dearman after she was charged with "willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice bringing the judicial office into disrepute in violation of the Mississippi Code of Judicial Conduct."
Judge Dearman was formally charged in 2009 and 2010 following a number of questionable decisions and rulings from the bench in the West District of Stone County Mississippi. Mississippi Justice Court Judges are not required to be lawyers to become a judge. The court ruling states that she is not a lawyer nor has attended law school.
"In April 2006, Judge Dearman presided over the initial appearance of Philipe D. White, who was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance, cocaine base. Judge Dearman set White’s bail at $2,500 and, as a condition of bail, required White to attend church at least once a week," states the court findings.
After it was found that White violated the terms of his bail he was re-arrested and this time Dearman ordered he be held in jail without a bond.
In another drug case from 2009 involving the sale of manufacturing of methamphetamine, Dearman required the defendant, as a condition of his bond, to attend church twice a week.
According the Supreme Court decision, Justice Court Judge's have the authority “to require a certain type of bond,” but they do not have the authority to order a defendant to attend church services.
Disciplinary action against Dearman included a case involving the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics where it was charged that Dearman contacted the Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper in an attempt to have the charges reduced to a misdemeanor and to ask the trooper to authorize the release of the defendants vehicle, which the trooper refused to agree with. The trooper stated the vehicle may be needed as evidence in the case that resulted in charges of "possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, driving under the influence and five additional traffic infractions."
In a controversial case in 2008, Judge Dearman was found to have used her position as judge to reduce a bond set at $60,000, without proper authority, to $10,000 and then "erroneously entered the bond amount as $5,000," setting the man free without the knowledge of the district attorney's office.
This pattern of Judge Dearman's of reducing some defendants bonds at will and in some cases reducing charges from felonies to misdemeanor's without the consent of the prosecutor's office resulted in numerous complaints filed with the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Dearman also used her position to assist family members charges with crimes in Stone County. In 2009, Judge Dearman’s nephew and his girlfriend were charged with domestic violence and simple assault with both defendants appearing before Dearman. Dearman reportedly set her nephew's bond and conditions of release 'less stringent' then she did for his girlfriend in the domestic dispute.
Judge Dearman was known for her views on drug use and drug related crimes, advocating a policy of a 'low bond with conditions', conditions that she deemed appropriate but found to be illegal, including mandatory church attendance, all in contrast to the desire of the county sheriff who disagreed with her policy.
The Supreme Court found that Dearman did not dispute the claims made against her. Because of this fact the court said it was their 'duty to impose constitutionally permissible sanctions' against the her, stating "the judge’s conduct was in violation of the Mississippi Constitution."
Dearman told the court that “most of the complaints against her are matters involving the exercise of judicial discretion, disagreements with [her] application of the law, and honest mistakes.” She argued that "her actions were not misconduct, but derived from being a fallible human, inevitably subject to occasional error “while making hundreds of decisions often under pressure.”
The court disagreed stating "she knowingly misused her office whatever the motive," by altering bonds, requiring church attendance and allowing others to "create the impression that they were in a special position to influence her as a judge, through ex parte communication, and for presiding over her nephew's court appearance."
Dearman agreed with the courts decision for a public reprimand, as well as suspension for thirty days without pay, and payment of the cost of the court proceedings against her.
Dearman has been a Justice Court Judge for six years. Nine complaints were filed against her over a three year period.
The Mississippi Supreme Court said in its ruling "Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is particularly important at the justice-court level because of the harmful effect of such an appearance on the public’s impression of the entire judiciary. The official integrity of our Justice Court Judges is vitally important, for it is on that level that many citizens have their only experience with the judiciary.”
More about mississippi judge suspended, Church attendance, condition of bail, willful misconduct, theresa brown dearman
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