Lansing — Michigan Supreme Court justices signaled concern Wednesday over a precedent an Oakland County judicial misconduct case could set for potential court penalties against judges who make erroneous rulings.
The state’s highest court heard oral arguments Wednesday on the alleged judicial misconduct of Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Gorcyca in her handling of a child custody case. Justices implied during the oral arguments they’re concerned about how the Gorcyca case outcome will impact future judicial misconduct cases.
“I feel like we’re gonna have to build a lot of judge jails because I think a lot of judges make legal errors,” said Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget Mary McCormack on Wednesday while questioning Lynn Helland, executive director of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission. McCormack said the appellate court system is meant to correct those errors, which don’t all need to result in misconduct violations.
Helland, former assistant U.S. attorney, now leads the commission after its former executive director, Paul Fischer, was fired.
Fischer had recommended a nine-month unpaid suspension for Gorcyca and is suing the state and commission for his employment termination in a separate case. The nine-member commission fired Fischer on Sept. 16 after he refused to resign, the lawsuit says. After letting him go, the commission later recommended a less-severe, 30-day unpaid suspension and public censure for Gorcyca.
The commission also is trying to fine the Oakland County judge $12,553.73, saying her response to a complaint against her was “misleading” and forced the tenure commission to perform an evidentiary hearing to “uncover the facts.” Fischer also wanted the same fine issued. The Michigan Supreme Court will ultimately decide on a fine for Gorcyca, who also hasn’t been suspended or censured.
The high court won’t make a decision on the case until this summer, but some justices’ questions during the oral arguments indicated concern with taking the commission’s position.
“OK, but here’s what we’re worried about: We’re all worried about opening lots of judge jails,” Justice Joan Larsen said to Helland.
Gorcyca made national headlines in 2015 when she sent three children to a county juvenile facility for refusing to have lunch with their father. In July, the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission found Gorcyca guilty of misconduct for acting inappropriately in the custody case involving the Bloomfield Hills children, aged 14, 11 and 9 at the time.
On Wednesday, Helland argued the judge’s handling of the case rose to the level of misconduct because she made an erroneous order with “animus” in sending the children to the juvenile facility.
Helland asked the court if Michigan permits angry judges to berate children and “demonstrate a loss of impartiality.” He argued that regardless of whether the children were right in fearing their father and avoiding him, Gorcyca used her authority and in such a way that constituted misconduct.
Justice Richard Bernstein questioned Gorcyca’s lawyer, Thomas Cranmer, an attorney with Miller Canfield, about how the judge used her authority.
“Don’t you think that we have a little bit of a higher standard” for judges “to deprive somebody of their freedom and their liberty … don’t you think when we use that power, we have to really make sure that power is used appropriately?” Bernstein asked.
Cranmer agreed but recommended the court find no misconduct because she simply had a bad day in an otherwise exemplary career. Cranmer said the judge instructed the children to spend more time with their father and said if they didn’t, “there has to be some consequence. It’s not inappropriate as far as I’m concerned.”
“Is it OK for a surgeon to have a bad day?” Bernstein asked.
Chief Justice Robert Young said if judicial canons suggest a behavior is inappropriate then there is little room for interpretation.
“If the conduct is inappropriate under the canons, the canons forbid it. Period,” Young said.
After hearing the arguments, the court will make a decision sometime before the end of July, according to Michigan Supreme Court spokesman John Nevin.