Judicial Conduct and Ethics Commission
Wendy J. Soto
As the Constitution prescribes, no review or recommendation of the Commission's budget is made by either the Supreme Court or the governor, only the legislature has this authority. As an independent entity within the judicial branch of state government, the Commission has a constitutional obligation to review all complaints of judicial misconduct brought to its attention against any Wyoming judicial officer. Pursuant to the Wyoming Constitution and the Rules Governing the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics, the Commission may impose private discipline including private censure, or may make a recommendation for public censure, suspension, removal, or retirement to the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The Commission consists of twelve Wyoming citizens, each of whom may serve a maximum of two three-year terms: three active Wyoming judges who are elected by the full-time active Wyoming judges; three members of the Wyoming State Bar appointed by its governing body; and six electors of the state who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate. Commission members volunteer a significant amount of professional time and receive no compensation, only reimbursement for expenses incurred on Commission business.
The Commission receives, investigates, hears, and adjudicates allegations of judicial misconduct, criminal misconduct, civil misconduct, or disability by Wyoming judicial officers. The Commission has jurisdiction over all active judges and justices in the state, including court commissioners, magistrates, municipal court judges and retired justices and judges, performing judicial service pursuant to Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 5-1-106(f). Currently, there are between 160 and 180 judicial officers in Wyoming.
Generally, the number of complaints received by the Commission has remained steady over the last few years. The complexity of issues raised in complaints received by the Commission often necessitates hiring of experienced, disciplinary counsel. The issues arising in many complaints have become more involved and take more time to render a disposition. Disciplinary counsel is reimbursed at a negotiated, and generally reduced hourly rate, mileage, and expenses. It is impossible for the Commission to estimate at any time the number and complexity of its complaints and thus, how often disciplinary counsel will be needed. Investigations have at times lasted more than two years, and so can span more than one biennium budget. Given these facts, adequate funding is vital in order to prevent delay of disciplinary proceedings, and interference with the Commission’s constitutionally mandated mission.
The expenses associated with the twelve-member Commission are minimal. As noted previously, Commissioners are volunteers and receive no compensation. They are simply reimbursed for expenses they incur while performing the work of the Commission. The executive director who supervises administration and investigation contracts is the only salaried employee.
The business of the twelve-member Commission and its staff is conducted primarily by email, teleconference, and electronic data transfer. It is necessary for the full Commission to meet in person at least two to three times a year to conduct all business that comes before the full Commission. The staggered terms cause the Commission to potentially acquire four new members each year. In fact, in the last year, due to retirements, unanticipated resignations, as well as the expiration of terms, the Commission has five new Commissioners. To fulfill the Commission's obligations to be fully prepared to serve the public regarding issues of judicial conduct and ethics, the yearly occurrence of these new members dictates these annual meetings. In addition, there continues to be no available in-state educational training program on judicial conduct and ethics. Adequate funds are needed to provide travel and registration costs to send at least five members and the executive director to judicial conduct educational programs.
The Commission is a very small agency with a proposed biennium budget of $370,594. It operates efficiently within its budget with one full-time employee and twelve volunteer Commissioners. Expenses include personnel, travel for meetings and training, administrative and office expenses, and the cost of hiring disciplinary counsel on an as needed basis.