Akron Municipal Judge Joy Malek Oldfield today begins her defense against ethics violations alleged after she was found inside a parked car with an intoxicated public defender.
A panel with the Ohio Supreme Court’s Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline will begin hearing testimony surrounding a complaint filed earlier this year accusing the first-term judge of multiple canon violations.
The charges stem from the early morning parking lot incident in Copley Township and her “intimate” and professional relationship with the attorney, who was assigned to represent indigent defendants in Oldfield’s court.
The judge faces a range of sanctions including a potential suspension of her law license, which would bar her — at least temporarily — from sitting as a judge. It is unlikely Oldfield would be removed from the office, even if a suspension is imposed.
Oldfield has never spoken publicly about the allegations and it is unclear if she will testify during the hearing in Columbus. She has, through her attorneys, denied the allegations made about her and Akron city assistant public defender Catherine Loya and documented in a Feb. 5, 2012, report by Copley Patrolman Thomas Ballinger.
“Contrary to the [allegations], Judge Oldfield and Ms. Loya were not ‘parked’ in the parking lot or involved in a romantic interchange,” Oldfield’s attorney, George Jonson, wrote in a brief filed in anticipation of the hearing.
Oldfield and Loya, he wrote, only stopped briefly. Oldfield was distraught over an ill relative and wanted a cigarette before going home. They remained in the front seat the entire time. Jonson contends Ballinger has provided “varying accounts of the event of the evening and these inconsistencies will be addressed at the hearing.”
The patrolman wrote — and later testified under oath at Loya’s drunken driving trial — that he saw the women together and partially clothed and smelling of alcohol while in the backseat of a car parked behind a strip mall at about 1:45 a.m.
Ballinger said in his report that as he walked to the car, he “observed a female’s head raise up from the backseat and look out the back window.” He then saw “two female subjects placing their clothing items on and then exit the backseat and move to the front seats.”
Oldfield, 37, had been on the bench for about a month when the incident occurred. She told the officer that she had been drinking and Loya had given her a ride home after the two left a party. Oldfield was not cited.
Loya was charged with a drunken driving-related offense. She took her case to trial and was convicted on a drunken driving-related charge in Barberton Municipal Court. She was fined $839 and was given a suspended 180-day jail sentence. No disciplinary action has been taken against Loya’s law license.
Charges of misconduct
Oldfield’s conduct during and after the incident was investigated by the disciplinary counsel. It concluded with an eight-page complaint filed in the spring by disciplinary counsel Jonathan Coughlan.
His investigation found Oldfield was guilty of judicial misconduct and accused her of violating judicial canons that cover promoting public confidence, abusing her judicial office to advance personal interests and failing to disqualify herself when her impartiality may be questioned.
A fourth finding from the investigation claims she violated the state’s rules of professional conduct for attorneys that bar conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.
In her response to the disciplinary charges filed Thursday by her attorney, Oldfield denies the most scathing of the officer’s version of the events. She denies that she and Loya, 32, were in the backseat together or in a state of nudity, as the police officer contends. She also says in the response that she did not try to use her position as a judge to intercede in Loya’s arrest nor seek special treatment.
Oldfield does admit that she and her husband offered Loya a ride to work in downtown Akron until Loya’s driving privileges were restored. Records show Loya stayed at Oldfield’s home for four days following her arrest.
Oldfield also concedes that Loya appeared in her court on 45 criminal cases after the incident until the public defender was reassigned to another judge after Feb. 17. The change did not occur until after the arrangement was questioned by the Beacon Journal.
The disciplinary complaint alleges Loya handled more than 100 cases in Oldfield’s court after the incident.
Panel to hear case
Coughlan concludes that Oldfield “engaged in intimate behavior with Loya” and other acts demonstrating a personal relationship between the two that should have excluded the attorney from practicing in Oldfield’s court.
“...[Oldfield] had a very personal and intimate relationship with Loya,” Coughlan concluded. “This is precisely the type of relationship that would trigger serious questions about [the judge’s] ability to be fair and impartial while presiding over Loya’s cases.”
The hearing in Columbus begins today and could extend into Tuesday, depending on the number of witnesses called to testify. The case will be heard by a three-member panel from the grievance and disciplinary counsel. The panel will either dismiss the complaint or send a disciplinary and sanctioning recommendation to the full board.
The full board will then review the case and make its own recommendation to the Supreme Court justices for final disposition. The entire process could extend into 2014, if the canon violations are upheld.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or email@example.com. Trexler will be attending the hearing in Columbus and will send updates via Twitter throughout the day. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PhilTrexler.