On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court brought to a close the disciplinary proceeding involving Judge Joy Oldfield of the Akron Municipal Court. A 5-2 majority issued a public reprimand, concluding that the judge violated judicial and professional conduct rules. Worth emphasis is that the two dissenting voices, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Judith Lanzinger, viewed the judgment, though not the punishment, as not tough enough.
Oldfield fell into trouble more than two years ago. After midnight, a Copley Township police officer found her and a public defender assigned to her courtroom in a car, parked at a shopping center after they had attended a party. The public defender refused a sobriety test. After a visit to the police station, an officer drove the two to the judge’s house, where the public defender stayed for three days. For two weeks, she continued to represent clients in the judge’s courtroom.
No surprise the disciplinary counsel and the court majority found that Oldfield failed to promote public confidence in the judiciary. She failed to avoid impropriety, let alone the appearance. She did not disqualify herself in 53 subsequent cases involving the public defender.
Writing briefly and persuasively in dissent, the chief justice sided with the disciplinary counsel, making plain that things got worse. She argued that the judge abused “the prestige of judicial office” to advance her own interest and that of the public defender. Oldfield let the officers know that she is a judge. She inserted herself into the arrest and booking of the public defender (who later was convicted). She wanted to know whether she could do something to help her friend.
The rules of conduct call for judges to resist such actions, just as it was out of bounds for Oldfield, via her attorney, to declare early in the episode that the Copley police officers were lying, or committing a crime, the words hardly promoting public confidence. The chief justice made a telling observation about assessing credibility “by the measure of one’s motivation for honesty.” She noted “no showing” in the record that the police officers would be motivated to lie.