The Supreme Court of Virginia in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For The Virginia Mercury)
In a 4-2 opinion, the Supreme Court of Virginia refused to unseal judicial disciplinary records detailing why a Virginia Beach judge was suspended from the bench amid controversy over her past tenure as chair of the Virginia Parole Board.
Judge Adrianne Bennett, who joined the Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court after stepping down from the Parole Board in early 2020, had asked the Supreme Court to intervene in her case before the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, which investigates accusations of judicial misconduct.
The Supreme Court declined to get involved, but sealed key documents in the case that would have shed light on the inquiry into Bennett, who is still listed as a presiding judge on her courthouse’s website. The Richmond Times-Dispatch challenged that decision, asking the court to unseal records that, by law, typically lose their confidential status if they rise to the state’s highest court.
Though the court agreed to unseal legal filings in the case, a majority of the justices concluded the JIRC records themselves should remain under seal to protect the disciplinary process for judges. Bennett herself attached those records to a filing in the Supreme Court, but the majority said that wasn’t enough to nullify the confidentiality of JIRC proceedings.
“If a litigant could bypass the confidentiality of judicial disciplinary proceedings by simply attaching a record of those proceedings to a pleading, the confidentiality protections would be largely illusory,” the majority wrote.
In a strongly worded dissent, Justices D. Arthur Kelsey and Teresa M. Chafin argued the majority opinion cuts against the principle that court business should be open to the public.
“Judge Bennett filed a mandamus action in the Supreme Court of Virginia asking us to order the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission (“JIRC”) to reinstate her to the bench,” Kelsey wrote in the dissent. “From the start, Judge Bennett made clear that she did not want anyone but us to see the reason why JIRC had suspended her. The majority holds that Judge Bennett has a statutory right to keep that information secret and that the public has no constitutional right to break the seal of secrecy.”
The Virginia Mercury requested the unsealed records from the Supreme Court but had not received them as of Thursday afternoon.
In a series of watchdog reports last year, the state’s Office of the Inspector General found Bennett’s Parole Board violated its own policies and state law in a series of controversial release decisions made just before she left in early 2020.
Most notably, Bennett was accused of forgoing neutrality to act as an advocate for Vincent Martin, an inmate who was released that year after serving 40 years in prison for the murder of a Richmond police officer in 1979. A draft OSIG report leaked to the media last year included an allegation Bennett told a hearing examiner there was no need to conduct a new parole interview with Martin and that a 2018 interview report could be submitted as “their own,” an instruction at least one Parole Board staffer felt could be construed as falsifying official records. That allegation was dropped from the final watchdog report released to the General Assembly and the media.
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The secrecy surrounding the process has made it difficult to determine whether the JIRC proceedings against Bennett were connected to the allegations of misconduct by the Parole Board she led. The Times-Dispatch reported last year that Bennett was on “extended leave.”
Lee Floyd, an attorney representing Bennett, applauded the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“Today’s decision from the Virginia Supreme Court struck the careful balance between the fundamental notion of public access to the courts and the statutory safeguards that protect judges from unwarranted complaints,” Floyd said. “Judge Bennett continues to serve honorably on the bench.”
Floyd would not comment further when asked to elaborate on the reason for Bennett’s suspension.
State law allows JIRC to temporarily suspend judges during a pending investigation if it finds the judge’s continued presence on the bench presents “a substantial and immediate threat to the public interest in the administration of justice.”
JIRC Counsel Ray Morrogh said he could not offer any additional comment on the case, “given the court’s order and the confidential nature of the proceedings.”
Disciplinary options available to JIRC include informal talking-tos, heightened supervision and permanent removal from the bench, depending on the severity of the offense. But the commission has strict confidentiality rules surrounding that process. Even when the commission makes an adverse finding against a judge, according to JIRC rules, those records are supposed to be destroyed “upon the judge’s death, resignation or retirement not subject to recall.”
Proceedings that lead to a formal complaint being filed with the Supreme Court are supposed to be open under state law, a fact the dissenting justices noted. That law says “the record of any proceeding filed with the Supreme Court shall lose its confidential character.”
“This is one of those occasions in which, despite the sometimes anfractuous lexicon of the law, simple words have simple meanings,” the dissenting justices wrote. “Any JIRC proceeding includes the one involving Judge Bennett. Filed includes the JIRC documents she filed with the Supreme Court. And shall lose its confidential character means that the JIRC record cannot (as opposed to may or may not) be hidden from the public.”
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