Removals of Top State Judges Are Rare

Judges on the nation's highest state courts periodically have gotten into serious trouble and have resigned in disgrace or have been removed from office.

The latest came Thursday, when an Alabama ethics panel axed Chief Justice Roy Moore (search) for refusing to abide by a federal judge's order that he remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse.

Moore's removal is unusual for a top court justice. Judges of the nation's highest courts, once elected or appointed, usually serve for as long as they desire.

Among the last instances in which a justice found himself in an ethics pickle was in 2001, when Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Richard Thomas (search) was forced to resign because he failed to keep up with his work. Thomas, then 68, admitted judicial misconduct and proposed retirement to settle the probe.

Cynthia Gray, director of the American Judicature Society's Center for Judicial Ethics (search), said there are about 350 high court justices across the nation. Each state has an ethics body to investigate alleged judicial violations against them and lower-court judges.

"Statistically, you wouldn't expect there to be many cases against them," she said.

Oregon Supreme Court Justice Ed Fadeley (search) came close to being removed from office, but resigned in 1998 after 10 years on the bench. His legal troubles began in 1997, when a state ethics panel found that he had a consensual sexual relationship with a secretary and had made sexually offensive and inappropriate comments to women employees.

Former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Edwin Peterson, Fadeley's former colleague, said the Oregon Supreme Court justices may have removed him from office had he not resigned. "His resignation made it moot," Peterson said.

Rhode Island's chief justices seem to have gotten in the most trouble.

In 1993, Chief Justice Thomas Fay stepped down, and later pleaded guilty to three counts of violating state ethics laws, converting state money to personal use, and obstruction of justice. And Chief Justice Joseph Bevilacqua resigned in 1986 amid impeachment proceedings after being accused of having ties to organized crime and of using court employees for personal errands and work.

New York state's former chief judge, Sol Wachtler (search), pleaded guilty in 1993 to threatening to kidnap his ex-lover's teenage daughter and of harassing them for a year. He resigned months before pleading guilty.

In 1994, Pennsylvania Justice Rolf Larsen was removed from office after being accused of allowing a friend and political supporter to influence cases.

In Mississippi, the latest high court flap ended two weeks ago when its judicial watchdog commission recommended against suspending Justice Chuck McRae.

He was accused of circulating confidential deliberations, acting on his own in a court decision, failing to recuse himself from cases involving family members and threatening and screaming at fellow Supreme Court justices and staff members, among other charges.

The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance concluded Oct. 31 that McRae's actions had an adverse effect on the Supreme Court, but not enough to warrant his suspension two months before his term expired.

In one of the nation's biggest voter revolts to a supreme court, California voters in 1986 removed Chief Justice Rose Bird and Justices Cruz Reynozo and Joseph Groden for reversing 56 out of 60 death sentences they had considered.