Louisville judge questioned for dismissing juries based on lack of minorities

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens and his wife, Dr. Raymonda Stevens, owe $582,885 in unpaid income taxes, according to Internal Revenue Service lien notices filed in the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office.

The federal liability stems from the Stevenses’ individual income taxes, according to the liens. The documents give no indication which spouse’s income is the source of the debt.

Olu Stevens was re-elected in 2014 after running unopposed and will serve through 2022. He became a judge in 2009 through an appointment by then-Gov. Steve Beshear and easily won an election in 2010 to remain in the seat.

Raymonda Stevens is a diagnostic radiologist specializing in breast imaging, according to the website of Central Kentucky Radiology, a private practice group.

Within the last year, Judge Stevens repeatedly has made national headlines, most notably for dismissing juries that were not racially diverse and then criticizing Louisville’s top prosecutor on social media when he challenged the judge’s authority.  

Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine had asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to decide whether Stevens has the authority to dismiss juries for having too few black members, as the judge has done twice. The state Judicial Conduct Commission is investigating Stevens, in part, for insinuating on Facebook that Wine is racist and wanted “all-white juries.”

The IRS liens don’t indicate whether the Stevenses have settled, or made arrangements to pay, the tax debt. It’s also possible that the couple has challenged the debt. That is not a matter of public record.

Judge Stevens did not reply to an e-mail on Monday asking to discuss the tax debt. He did not respond to another email on Wednesday. Repeated phone calls to his office have not been returned.

A message left for Raymonda Stevens on Wednesday was not returned.

Legal experts say the tax liens are concerning in part because the code of judicial conduct requires judges to avoid the appearance of impropriety in their conduct even off the bench.

DePaul University law professor Jeffrey Shaman, a national expert on judicial ethics, said the unpaid taxes could show that Judge Stevens is “not very good at managing his finances, so it reflects on his ability as a judge and reflects upon his character as a judge. It’s certainly the sort of thing that might diminish public confidence in the judiciary.”

Judicial ethics professors, including the University of Kentucky's William Fortune, said voters have a right to know about an elected official “who has that amount of back-tax liability. You’re basing your vote on their character.”

But at the same time, Shaman said there “might be some explanation for this” that’s favorable to the judge.

“If it’s the wife’s liability, that decreases the responsibility of the judge,” Shaman said. “I think the public has an interest in knowing of these matters and might want to take ask for a fuller explanation the next time he is up for election.”

The IRS first filed a lien notice against the Stevenses in May 2013, saying they owed $503,108.10 in taxes, interest and penalties for the 2009-2011 tax years.

The government filed a second notice in August 2015, saying the Stevenses owe $79,776.97 for the 2013 and 2014 tax years.

The government asserts a claim to “all property” owned by the Stevenses until the debt is settled, the notices say. The couple owns an 8,282-square-foot, $2.1 million house in Prospect, according to Jefferson County PVA records.  

No other Jefferson County judges have federal tax liens, according to a search of the County Clerk’s website.

Stevens’ has been in the national spotlight since November when he began posting about Tom Wine and his office on Facebook after a WDRB story in October reporting that Wine had asked the state Supreme Court to determine whether the judge was abusing his power by dismissing a jury because he felt it was lacking enough black people. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the issue.

On Nov. 18, 2014, after a 13-member jury chosen for a theft trial ended up with no black jurors, Stevens said he found it “troublesome” and dismissed the panel at the request of a defense attorney.

“There is not a single African-American on this jury and (the defendant) is an African-American man,” Stevens said, according to a video of the trial. “I cannot in good conscience go forward with this jury.”

In October of last year, Stevens halted a drug trial and dismissed the entire jury panel, asking for a new group because the potential jurors were "not representative of the community."

Stevens has written on Facebook that Wine was going to the Supreme Court to “protect the right to impanel all-white juries” and that “is not what we need to be in 2015. Do not sit silently. Stand up. Speak up.”

Last month, Chief Justice John Minton harshly criticized Stevens for his posts, but referred the request to the Judicial Conduct Commission saying he does not have the authority to remove the judge.

"Judge Stevens’s ensuing public discourse appears to flout the directives of the Code of Judicial Conduct, creating a social-media firestorm calculated to aggrandize himself by exploiting the deep-seated and widespread distrust of the criminal-justice system by minority communities," Minton's decision last month stated.

It is unknown when the commission will rule on whether Stevens has violated the code of judicial conduct.

You can read the documents here.

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