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In re Inquiry Concerning A Judge

Supreme Court of North Carolina

May 10, 2019

IN RE INQUIRY CONCERNING A JUDGE, NO. 17-143 APRIL M. SMITH, Respondent

         This matter is before the Court pursuant to N.C. G.S. §§ 7A-376 and -377 upon a recommendation by the Judicial Standards Commission entered 7 November 2018 that Respondent April M. Smith, a Judge of the General Court of Justice, District Court Division, Judicial District Twelve, be publicly reprimanded for conduct in violation of Canons 1, 2A, 3A(3), and 3B(1) 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. This matter was calendared for argument in the Supreme Court on 4 March 2019, 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 3 of the Rules for Supreme Court Review of Recommendations of the Judicial Standards Commission.

          No counsel for Judicial Standards Commission or Respondent.

          ORDER

          EARLS, J.

         The issue before the Court is whether District Court Judge April M. Smith, Respondent, should be publicly reprimanded for violations of Canons 1, 2A, 3A(3), and 3B(1) of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct amounting to 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 has not challenged the findings of fact made by the Judicial Standards Commission (the Commission) or opposed the Commission's recommendation that she be publicly reprimanded by this Court.

         On 20 February 2018, Commission Counsel filed a Statement of Charges against Respondent alleging that she had engaged in conduct inappropriate to her office by demonstrating a lack of respect for the judicial office and for the Chief District Judge; by failing to facilitate the administrative duties of the Chief Judge and court staff; by repeatedly and regularly making disparaging comments about the Chief Judge to other judges, judicial staff, clerical staff, and members of the local bar; and by failing to diligently discharge her duties, bringing the judicial office into disrepute. Respondent fully cooperated with the Commission's inquiry into this matter. In the Statement of Charges, Commission Counsel asserted that Respondent's actions constituted conduct inappropriate to her judicial office and prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute or otherwise constituted grounds for disciplinary proceedings under Chapter 7A, Article 30 of the North Carolina General Statutes.

         Respondent filed her answer on 9 April 2018. On 20 August 2018, Commission Counsel and Respondent entered into a Stipulation and Agreement for Stated Disposition (the Stipulation) containing joint evidentiary, factual, and disciplinary stipulations as permitted by Commission Rule 22 that tended to support a decision to publicly reprimand Respondent. The Stipulation was filed with the Commission on 22 August 2018. The Commission heard this matter on 5 October and entered its recommendation on 7 November 2018, which contains the following stipulated findings of fact:

1. Respondent is one (1) of ten (10) judges of the General Court of Justice, District Court Division, Judicial District 12 (Cumberland County). She was elected in November 2014 at thirty-five (35) years old along with two (2) other district court judges. In 2017, another district court judge was elected for a total of ten (10) judges. There are eight (8) courtrooms available for district court proceedings in the Cumberland County Courthouse.
2. The current Chief District Court Judge was elected more than twenty (20) years ago and was appointed Chief Judge commencing January 1, 2015 upon the retirement of the previous Chief District Court Judge. After Respondent's election, the Chief Judge assigned Respondent primarily to serve as one of the court's family court judges and to hear domestic violence matters, although she was also assigned to hear various criminal cases.
3. At the start of 2015, when Respondent began her service as a judge, she believed her relationship with the Chief Judge to be pleasant and collegial. By the end of 2015, however, Respondent became frustrated with the Chief Judge based on scheduling and communication differences.
4. Beginning in 2016, Respondent also began experiencing serious health issues that required Respondent to attend frequent medical appointments. Over a period of time, Respondent's health deteriorated as her physicians attempted to determine what medical condition she was dealing with. In 2017, Respondent was diagnosed with two (2) chronic autoimmune diseases- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and Mixed Connective Tissue Disorder. These ·two conditions have required Respondent to receive various medical treatments including chemotherapy and she is subject to experiencing "flares." As a result of these health issues, Respondent has taken multiple leaves of absence. The Chief Judge has accommodated all of Respondent's requests for medical leaves of absence pursuant to physician orders.
5. Thereafter, Respondent's relationship with the Chief Judge deteriorated further because she believed that the Chief Judge was subjecting her to unfair treatment in court assignments. Among other things:
a. Respondent perceived that the Chief Judge assigned her more often to Courtroom 3A than other judges. Courtroom 3A is considered a difficult courtroom because judges who preside there must hear not only their regularly scheduled calendar, but also accept walk-in domestic violence, temporary custody and other cases. This makes presiding in Courtroom 3A a long and often times stressful day.
b. Respondent also believed that she was being assigned disproportionately to Courtroom 3A on Fridays after concluding family court trials and hearings earlier in the week, when other family law judges were not.
c. Respondent believed that the Chief Judge provided other judges with more unassigned days than were provided to her.
d. Respondent believed that the Chief Judge unfairly assigned her to cover other courtrooms when her special sessions concluded while not requiring the same of other judges.
e. Respondent believed the Chief Judge failed to accommodate her requests for unassigned days or time off, either to attend medical appointments, preside over swearing-in ceremonies, attend educational programs for judges, or take vacation time.
6. As a result of the perceptions noted above, Respondent began complaining about her court assignments, unassigned days, and her opinion that the Chief Judge treated her unfairly, to other judges in her district, retired judges, court staff, and local attorneys, all of whom she considered to be her friends. Respondent also suggested to her case manager and a courtroom clerk that the ...

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