Judge cited by court for misconduct

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 2, 1999

Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders was cited for judicial misconduct by the Supreme Court Thursday — the second such reprimand in two years.

In Thursday’s judgment, the state’s highest court cited Sanders for two offenses.

The first involved her order to jail Adams County Circuit Clerk Fred Ferguson on $500,000 bond on a contempt charge after having a dispute with Ferguson over whether she was senior judge in the district.

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She was also cited for clearing the records of two Amite County men who pleaded guilty to drug manufacturing.

As punishment, the reprimand will be read in open circuit court in each of the four counties in the Sixth Circuit District. Sanders is also required to pay more than $2,156 in court costs.

In 1998, Sanders was fined $1,500 for suspending the sentence of two inmates.

The state Commission for Judicial Performance, the agency that oversees judges, had asked the court to fine Sanders $3,000 in the latest case, but the court chose not to fine her.

The Commission filed a formal complaint against Sanders in April 1998, but the Supreme Court has final say on the matter.

&uot;We adopt the commission’s finding that Judge Sanders violated the Code of Judicial Conduct (by committing) conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice,&uot; the court wrote in its ruling.

In its 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected Sanders’ earlier charge that she was targeted because she was a black female.

Sanders could not be reached for comment Thursday, but during a hearing on her behalf in May, she told the court that the judicial commission is racially biased.

The Supreme Court disagreed with this allegation. &uot;(The data)&160;does not show that any judge in circumstances similar to those here has not been similarly treated,&uot; the court wrote. &uot;Nor does it show a pattern of dissimilar treatment based upon race.&uot;

The first of the new charges took place in September 1997, when the court says Sanders misused her contempt power by arresting and holding Ferguson on a $500,000 cash bond. He had failed to follow her order to post the court terms she had set for 1998. By law, this is the senior circuit judge’s responsibility. But there had been a dispute over whether Sanders or fellow Circuit Judge Forrest &uot;Al&uot; Johnson was the senior judge. An attorney general’s opinion said Johnson was the senior judge.

Despite controversy over Ferguson’s attitude toward the judge, Sanders was cited for turning the incident into a personal vendetta.

&uot;Judge Sanders allowed her personal feelings regarding the issue of the Senior Circuit Judgeship to cloud her professional judgment when dealing with Ferguson,&uot;&160;the court wrote.

&uot;This is the second time she has been reprimanded, and I certainly hope it will be the last,&uot; Ferguson said. &uot;She threw me in jail, and she had no business doing that.&uot;

Sanders’ second citation concerns her alleged illegal expungment of drug records for Ronald and Gay Havard of Amite County. Johnson had previously denied the request.

Although Sanders said in a hearing before the court that she could not remember signing the records, she did not deny that the signature appeared to be hers.

&uot;At the very least, Judge Sanders is guilty of illegally expunging records out of carelessness or mistake,&uot;&160;the court wrote. &uot;At the worst, Judge Sanders is guilty of expunging the records by willfully disregarding state statutes and the prior order of a fellow judge.&uot;

The court also ordered Sanders to reopen the expunged records and give notice to the involved parties.

Two of the gih court’s justices voted against the ruling,

Associate Justice C.R. &uot;Chuck&uot;&160;McRae explained his dissenting vote in writing. He wrote he did not believe the commission had enough reason to charge Sanders $2,156.80 in court costs. There was also a problem with lack of evidence, due process and remaining questions about the expunged records, he wrote.

He also questioned Ferguson’s behavior.

&uot;Ferguson was the clerk of the court, and it was his duty to file the orders of the circuit court judges,&uot; McRae said. &uot;It was not his job to question the content of the orders given him by either judge.&uot;

Commission Director Brant Brantley said the ruling supported the commission’s findings. &uot;The commission is satisfied with the court’s opinion,&uot; he said.

Sanders has 15 days to file to ask for a rehearing of the case.