IN RE: INQUIRY CONCERNING A JUDGE, NO. 13-127, BRENDA G. BRANCH, Respondent
No counsel for Judicial Standards Commission or respondent.
For Brenda G. Branch, Defendant-Appellee: Mr. Gilbert Chichester, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Roanoke Rapids, NC.
For Judicial Standads Commission, Plaintiff-Appellee: Mr. J. Christopher Heagarty, Primary Attorney, Attorney at Law, Judicial Standads Commission.
Beasley, J. Justice
ERVIN did not participate in the consideration or decision of this case.
Beasley, J. Justice.
This matter is before the Court pursuant to N.C.G.S. § § 7A-376 and 7A-377 upon a recommendation by the Judicial Standards Commission entered 6 June 2014 that respondent Brenda G. Branch, a Judge of the General Court of Justice, District Court Division 6A, State of North Carolina, be publicly reprimanded for conduct in violation of Canons 1, 2A, 3A(1), and 3A(4) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct
and for conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute in violation of N.C.G.S. § 7A-376(b). Calendered for argument in the Supreme Court on 6 October 2014, but determined on the record without briefs or oral argument pursuant to Rule 30(f) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure and Rule 2(c) of the Rules for Supreme Court Review of Recommendations of the Judicial Standards Commission.
By the recommendation of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission (Commission), the issue before this Court is whether [367 N.C. 734] Brenda G. Branch (respondent), a judge of the General Court of Justice, District Court Division, Judicial District 6A, should be publicly reprimanded for conduct in violation of Canons 1, 2A, 3A(1), and 3A(4) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute in violation of N.C.G.S. § 7A-376(b). Respondent waived her right to a formal hearing, and she does not contest the facts or oppose the Commission's recommendation that she be publicly reprimanded.
On 13 January 2014, the Commission's counsel filed a statement of charges alleging that respondent had engaged in inappropriate conduct while presiding over divorce proceedings in which Sergeant First Class Jason Foster (Foster) was the defendant. Foster was deployed overseas at the time of the proceedings. The statement of charges asserted that respondent denied Foster a fair trial in clear violation of the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act of 2003. Respondent filed an answer on 18 February 2014, which was timely received by the Commission. On 9 May 2014, the Commission held a formal hearing of the matter at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Counsel for the Commission and counsel for respondent presented evidence at the hearing by stipulation. After reviewing all the evidence and hearing oral arguments from counsel, on 6 June 2014, the Commission made its recommendation, which stated the following findings of fact:
1. The investigative panel of the Commission alleged that, in the matter of Halifax County File No. 12-CVD-733, Foster v. Foster, the Respondent engaged in conduct inappropriate to her judicial office by:
a. making inadequate inquiry into the rights afforded to Defendant Jason Foster, a litigant protected under the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act of 2003, 50 U.S.C. App. § § 501-597b (hereafter " the SCRA" ), and failing to maintain adequate professional competence in this area of the law;
b. imprudently relying upon the counsel for the opposing party in the matter for a determination of the rights afforded to Defendant Jason Foster under the SCRA, without sufficiently performing her own independent inquiry and research into the law, and allowing opposing counsel to present such advice and opinion on the law to the Court outside of ...