Thursday, July 18, 2019
A judicial sanction has been imposed by the Mississippi Supreme Court on a repeat offender judge.
We agree with the Commission [on Judicial Performance] that Judge Sutton’s conduct constituted misconduct. We disagree with the Commission’s imposition of sanctions. Instead, we order a public reprimand, fine Judge Sutton $500 and suspend Judge Sutton for thirty days without pay.
The judge stipulated to two counts of misconduct
On January 31, 2018, Investigator Nick Brown with the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department arrested and charged Amanda Howard with prostitution. Howard’s hearing was scheduled for February 22, 2018. The day after Howard’s arrest, Michael Liddell approached Judge Sutton in court and asked Judge Sutton if he could help Liddell with the charges pending against Howard. That afternoon, Judge Sutton called Investigator Brown and asked him if he could “help him out” on the prostitution charge against Howard because he knew her family. Investigator Brown told Judge Sutton that he would not “help him out” with the prostitution charge. That same day—February 1, 2018, Judge Sutton, sua sponte and without a hearing, remanded Howard’s prostitution charge to the file, subject to recall.
On June 26, 2018, Investigator Keith Burnett, with the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department, arrested Barry Jones and charged him with possession of marijuana. Jones’s mother, who is a parishioner at Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church where Judge Sutton serves as pastor, approached Judge Sutton and asked if he could help Jones. Judge Sutton called Investigator Burnett and inquired about Jones’s arrest and pending charges. Judge Sutton asked about the weight of the marijuana collected from Jones and whether the charge was a misdemeanor or felony. Investigator Burnett informed Judge Sutton that 35.2 grams of marijuana had been collected from Jones’s apartment and that he was charging Jones with “Possession of a Controlled Substance Felony.” The record is silent as to what Judge Sutton did with this information.
He violated several Canons of Judicial Conduct
Judge Sutton did not promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. His actions were also influenced by social relationships and conveyed the impression that those acquaintances were in a position to influence his actions as a judge. As to Count One, Liddell approached Judge Sutton in court to request his assistance with Howard’s charges. Judge Sutton should have immediately declined to assist Howard and informed Liddell that his request was improper because Judge Sutton was bound by his oath to be impartial. Also, while the telephone communication in Count Two was less public, Jones’s mother was left with the impression that Judge Sutton would help her son.
Judge Sutton’s intermingling of his role as pastor and justice court judge did not comport with Canon 4A when he agreed to contact Investigator Burnett about the charges against Jones.
The Commission has issued cautionary letters to Judge Sutton five times: once in 2012, twice in 2016 and twice in 2017. In 2012, Judge Sutton failed to start court on time and treat the litigants and attorneys with the appropriate demeanor. In 2016, Judge Sutton failed to properly jail litigants in a contempt matter and failed to exhibit the appropriate judicial demeanor. In 2017, Judge Sutton twice failed to exhibit the appropriate judicial demeanor.
Also, the Commission has privately reprimanded Judge Sutton twice: once in 2005 and once in 2008. In 2005, Judge Sutton personally solicited funds for his reelection campaign. He entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Commission and received a private admonishment. In 2008, Judge Sutton engaged in improper ex parte communication. He entered into an agreed statement of facts and proposed recommendation with the Commission and received a private admonishment. The record is silent as to any details concerning this ex parte communication.
Last, in 2008, the Commission consolidated two formal complaints against Judge Sutton and submitted them to this Court. Sutton, 985 So. 2d at 324. There, this Court publicly reprimanded Judge Sutton and assessed costs of $1,900.89 against him for his misconduct in three cases. Id.
...Given Judge Sutton’s history with the Commission and his past sanctions for improper ex parte communication, we suspend Judge Sutton for thirty days without pay, in addition to the Commission’s recommended sanctions of a public reprimand and a $500 fine. Judge Sutton remanded a criminal charge to the files, engaged in multiple ex parte communications and left the public and the law-enforcement community with the impression that he was biased and was willing to act partially on behalf of certain litigants. Judge Sutton’s misconduct merits a thirty-day, unpaid suspension, a $500 fine and a public reprimand.