Judge on hot seat admits incivility
Drug-court jurist gets state censure
County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan, whose handling of the Little Rock-area’s drug court has been harshly criticized by Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley, on Friday admitted to specific instances of rude and unprofessional behavior to court staff members, a criminal defendant and two lawyers, one of them a Jegley deputy assigned to the drug court.
McGowan’s admission that she has violated judicial standards spared her a public hearing before the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission that would have required the ethics panel to take testimony from the judge’s accusers, as well as hear from witnesses called on her behalf, in a trial-like setting that could have led to McGowan being removed from the bench.
The commission is a constitutionally created judicial regulator empowered to sanction judges, although the authority to remove judges from office resides entirely with the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, McWASHINGTON
Gowan, a judge for 27 years, declined to comment.
McGowan’s arrangement with the commission requires her to undergo training over the next year about how judges are required to conduct themselves in the courtroom. The 70-year-old jurist also will submit to regular monitoring of her courtroom by the regulators for the rest of her judicial career.
Elected in 1990, McGowan is expected to retire when her term expires at the end of 2020. Judges lose their retirement benefits if they are elected to the bench after turning 70. McGowan is one of 17 judges in the 6th Judicial Circuit that serves Perry and Pulaski counties.
By accepting responsibility for her behavior and negotiating her sanctions with the commission, the judge received a seven-page written censure from the panel’s executive director, David Sachar.
Sachar himself is one of four complainants cited in the sanctioning papers.
His complaint, based on audio recordings of the judge, described a February 2017 incident in which McGowan berated Jegley deputy Vickie Ewenike, the prosecutor who was assigned to drug court at the time. McGowan ordered Ewenike out of the courtroom during a hearing with a drug-court defendant then continued to conduct the proceeding without a prosecutor, Sachar stated.
“McGowan’s demeanor as reflected in the audio recordings was impatient and discourteous to Ewenike, and undignified for a judge,” he wrote.
Reached for comment Friday, Jegley said he’s said all he needs to say about the judge, but noted that the commission’s findings, acknowledged by McGowan as correct, vindicate his observations about her.
In a June letter to the Arkansas Supreme Court, Jegley described drug court as a “catastrophe” that he had stopped supporting a year earlier because of McGowan’s bullying behavior in court. Criminal defendants cannot get a drug-court assignment without the prosecutor’s approval.
Drug court is a rehabilitative program for defendants who must admit they have substance-abuse problems and submit to a court-monitoring program. Defendants who complete the drug-court curriculum can have their criminal cases dismissed and expunged from the record.
McGowan’s fellow judges have endorsed a plan that would allow McGowan to close the cases she is supervising, then transfer the court to Judge Patti James.
The Supreme Court justices, who must approve any circuit-court restructuring, have appointed a retired judge to review 6th Judicial Circuit operations and present a recommendation on how the Pulaski and Perry county courts should be organized.
Sachar’s censure letter cites these other complaints about McGowan:
Deputy Public Defender Mac Carder describes the judge cutting him off during a November 2016 drug-court hearing while he was trying to represent his client. McGowan ordered the client to leave the court while Carder was addressing the judge.
In a January 2017 drugcourt hearing, McGowan “raised her voice and used a discourteous tone” to defendant John M. Miles, who complained about the encounter.
Another complainant was now-former McGowan staff member, N’Ell Jones.
“McGowan’s demeanor as reflected in the audio recordings was impatient, discourteous and undignified for a judge,” the censure letter states. “McGowan has been impatient, discourteous and undignified to probation officers … with members of her own court staff.”
McGowan’s courtroom demeanor — the way she treats lawyers and defendants — has been called into question before.
In 2008, North Little Rock attorney Cecily Skarda, attempting to unseat McGowan in that year’s election, bluntly criticized the manner in which the judge talked to lawyers and defendants. Skarda described her as insulting, rude, arrogant and mean-spirited. McGowan denied engaging in any rude behavior and attributed Skarda’s criticism as sour grapes from a lawyer McGowan had ruled against. McGowan easily won her fifth term that year, defeating Skarda by capturing twice as many votes.
But about six months later, in November 2008, the disciplinary commission reprimanded McGowan in part for “lapses in demeanor” while on the bench on “several occasions” prior to May 2005.
“Specifically, you were not always patient and courteous to litigants and lawyers and others with whom you deal in an official capacity,” the twopage sanctioning letter by David Stewart, Sachar’s predecessor as director, states.
In Friday’s letter, McGowan acknowledged violating six rules established in two of the four canons for judges established in the Code of Judicial Conduct:
1) A judge should uphold and promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
2) A judge shall perform the duties of the judicial office impartially, competently and diligently.
The four canons contain 39 rules for judges.
In November 2016, McGowan accepted an “informal adjustment” letter from the commission for taking too long to rule — 13 months — on a lawsuit filed against the commission by Little Rock attorney Sam Perroni.