Louisville Judge Olu Stevens suspended while under investigation
"Judge Stevens determined that it was in the best interest of all of the parties and the community to enter into this agreement," said Stevens' attorney, Larry Wilder.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens has been suspended pending an investigation by the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission into judicial misconduct charges.
The commission, which is the disciplinary arm of the judicial branch, had planned to call witnesses on Tuesday in a Jefferson County courtroom -- similar to a trial -- to determine whether Stevens should be taken off the bench while the investigation proceeded.
But the commission and Stevens came to an agreement Friday in which the judge accepted a temporary suspension, effective Monday.
"He agreed to take the suspension rather than go through the hearing," said Steve Wolnitzek, chairman of the Judicial Conduct Commission.
Stevens will be on paid leave at least until the commission conducts a hearing on the judicial misconduct charge, which should be in the next two or three months, Wolnitzek said. Other judges will handle Stevens' cases while he is off the bench.
"Judge Stevens determined that it was in the best interest of all of the parties and the community to enter into this agreement," said Stevens' attorney, Larry Wilder. "Now we can all focus on the issue at hand regarding the First Amendment and the alleged misconduct."
Other Jefferson Circuit Court judges will handle Stevens' cases while he is suspended.
The commission formally charged Stevens earlier this month with six counts of "misconduct" for his treatment of victims who came before him and public comments the judge made about prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The commission can suspend, remove or sanction the judge, if members find him guilty.
Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Wine and Stevens were the only two scheduled witnesses for the hearing.
On April 5, Stevens asked the commission to dismiss the charges against him, arguing the investigation and possible disciplinary actions are a violation of his First Amendment rights and he has a duty to discuss what he feels is the systemic exclusion of black citizens on juries.
The conduct commission is investigating Stevens for criticizing the victims of an armed robbery last year, saying they were "fostering" the views of their 5-year-old daughter, whom they said was still scared of black men after two African Americans had held the family at gunpoint.
"I wonder if the perpetrator had been white, would they be in fear of white men?" Stevens said during the Feb. 4, 2015 hearing. "The answer would probably be no. I’m offended by that."
The conduct commission said Stevens' comments constitute "misconduct" and violate the code of judicial conduct by failing to be courteous and unbiased.
The conduct commission is also investigating Stevens for insinuating on Facebook that Wine is racist and wanted "all-white juries."
On Nov. 18, 2014, Stevens dismissed a jury panel because it did not represent a cross-section of the community. Wine filed a motion with the Kentucky Supreme Court asking if Stevens had the authority to dismiss a jury based on the lack of black members.
After WDRB posted an article on Oct. 20, 2015 -- when Stevens dismissed another jury because of the lack of minorities -- and highlighted the argument before the Supreme Court, the judge posted several comments on Facebook criticizing Wine, saying he was "advocating" for all-white jury panels, according to the commission.
The comments constitute "misconduct" and violate several judicial canons requiring, among other things, that judges not be biased or show prejudice, the commission has charged.
On Nov. 12, 2015, Stevens gave a presentation to the Louisville Bar Association in which the judge "continued (his) attacks" on Wine, the commission claims.
"He will live in infamy and he will be the butt of every prosecutor's jokes," Stevens said of Wine during the speech.
Stevens also continued commenting about Wine in the following months and talked about the case pending before the Supreme Court, urging people not to "sit quietly while our community suffers this."
Speaking about a pending case is another violation of judicial canons, according to the commission.
The judge also spoke out against Dan Goyette, head of the Louisville Public Defender's office, and criminal defense attorneys in general.
"The comments criticized them for not publicly supporting you in your dispute with the Jefferson County Commonwealth's Attorney," the commission wrote.
Earlier this month, Stevens filed a federal lawsuit against the commission, claiming the commission is violating the judge's First Amendment rights. Judge Stevens is a very passionate man," said attorney Larry Wilder, who is representing Stevens. "And Judge Stevens has raised some very important issues that are of great public importance."
The suit asks that a federal judge prohibit the conduct commission from imposing sanctions on Stevens.
In the lawsuit, Stevens said the case in front of the high court should be captioned, "Commonwealth V. All Black Defendants."
Kentucky Court of Appeals Judge Irv Maze recently ordered Judge Stevens "not to dismiss future jury panels unless affirmative testimonial requirements … are met, leading the court to conclude that there was evidence of systematic exclusion."
In his lawsuit, Stevens said Kentucky "has a history of racism within its criminal justice system and jury selection system" and the lack of diversity on juries has "remained unaddressed" by prosecutors.
Stevens' argues some of his comments were private, but his public comments about Wine were "not out of any personal animus" but "out of concern" about the actions by Wine in "this matter of public concern," according to the suit. Stevens is represented by attorneys Larry Wilder and J. Bart McMahon.
In the suit, Stevens said his comments were not a violation of judicial canons and the judge "has a First Amendment right to speak on such matters fraught with public concern." Speaking to the media, Wilder said, "He (Stevens) believes in everything he has said, and has a firm belief that when he was speaking, he was speaking clothed with the same first amendment rights you as the press have and we as individuals have. And the cloud is between when you're a judge and when you're a person and is there ever a distinction or difference."
Stevens also questioned the actions of defense attorneys and others who "remained silent" while Wine "pursued a course of action that was racially discriminatory in its intent and impact," according to the lawsuit.
His comments, according to the suit, were true and "the truth may not be punished, either criminally or civilly."
A judge does not "check his first amendment rights at the courthouse door" and punishing Stevens would have a chilling effect on Kentucky citizens, the suit claims.
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