published Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Core rules for courts

Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon has been the target of several ethical complaints filed by local attorneys with the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary the last few years, but the latest charges to come to light are among the most serious. If true, they would suggest that Judge Moon in at least two cases assumed the role of police and prosecutor in his court, laying charges against defendants that were not brought by the police or district attorney general’s office, and jailing the defendants without advising them of their rights or providing them an opportunity to legal counsel to defend themselves.

Judge Moon has denied the charges brought against him by attorneys Ben McGowan and Hank Hill, the latter on behalf of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in one of the two cases. Moon told this paper’s reporter, Todd South, that the charges reflect just a difference of legal opinion. He claimed the alleged actions do not violate judicial ethics, and that they should have been handled by a direct appeal to a higher court.

If that’s the case, the appeals would have had to come after the judge had already responded to the surprising charges he invoked by jailing the defendants in each case.

According to South’s report, Hill’s complaint claimed that in a 2010 case, Troy Standifer, a defendant who appeared in court only on traffic charges, was charged by Moon with possession of drugs after he failed a drug test that Moon suggested he take. The man said that he went to court prepared to pay traffic fines and ended up handcuffed and jailed on a charge of drug possession.

He said Moon had offered him a choice: take a drug test, and if it came back clean, he’d get month in jail rather than having to pay traffic fines and lose his driver’s license. Acting without the advice of a lawyer or a full understanding of the option, he took the test. He said he was shocked to fail the test, and then asked to resolve his traffic cases. He said Moon offered him the choice of accepting the drug possession charge or the two traffic charges. Not knowing what to do, he asked an one of the attorneys waiting in the courtroom what to do. One told him to take the drug test. When he did, Moon ordered him to jail, and he served three months.

In the 2008 case cited by McGowan, two cousins, Destiny and Keyata Bush, were asked by prosecutors to testify in an assault case being heard in Moon’s courtroom. At the time of the hearing, they were in diversion status on probation on unrelated charges of shoplifting. Judicial diversion allows defendants with no record to have their record expunged if they finish probation without having additional charges filed against them.

When the pair finished testifying, Moon ordered the arrest of the young women and jailed them on the grounds that their testimony showed they had violated terms of their diversion. McGowan’s complaint to the Court of the Judiciary — the entity that polices the conduct and ethics of judges — noted that under the circumstances, the women should have been advised of their rights not to incriminate themselves, and said that they were entitled to a separate hearing and legal counsel. Two legal experts questioned by South agreed with McGowan’s view. They said Moon’s alleged circumvention of the defendants constitutional due process rights was “appalling.”

Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole later sustained McGowan on those constitutional issues, a point Moon said had already resolved the complaint and obviated the need for a complaint to the Court of the Judiciary.

In fact, the Court of the Judiciary should be made aware of any significant potential violations by judges of constitutional and ethical standards. Judges’ judicial conduct is not limitless.

Moon has previously been cautioned about allowing Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers to bring the bulk of their cases to his court — one of five in Sessions Court — and other complaints have been filed alleging that he has overstepped the rules on political activity, and has used derogatory terms for Hispanics in this courtroom. The Court of the Judiciary doesn’t act quickly or particularly forcefully, but it should do better when it comes to enforcing the application of basic constitutional standards.

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