Appeals court says Meares must have misconduct hearing

Former Circuit Court Judge Mike Meares will be have to appear before a judge to determine whether or not he is guilty of judicial misconduct.

The case is to determine if he acted inappropriately in connection with the sentencing of a woman who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in June.

It was the second time in a week the former judge was the focus of attention from the legal community. On Sept. 16, all circuit and chancery court judges in Blount County recused themselves from cases involving the law firm Meares has worked with since losing his bid to keep the position as circuit court judge.

The voluntary manslaughter case in question involved April Warren, a woman who Meares sentenced on May 29 to 10 years in prison based on her status as a multiple offender. According to an order the State Court of Criminal Appeals handed down on Sept. 12, Warren filed notice of appeal on May 30. On that same date she moved the trial court to allow her to remain on her pretrial bond of $125,000 pending appeal or, as an alternative, asked the judge to set a new bond pending appeal.

At the conclusion of a June 23 hearing, Meares denied Warren’s request bond pending appeal.

According to the order from the Appeals court:

“Defense counsel (Assistant Public Defender Stacey Nordquist) asserts that on July 28, she was informed by an assistant district attorney general that the trial court judge who presided over the defendant’s case, including sentencing and the bond matter, ‘had made contact with the victim’s family after the sentencing hearing.’ Defense council asserts that the information she received was that the ‘trial court judge asked the family if they were pleased with the result of the sentencing hearing and asked the family to write a letter in support of the trial judge of in the upcoming election, which they did.”

According to the order, Nordquist submitted that in view of the Meares’ alleged conduct, “the judge’s ruling regarding (Warren’s) sentencing and request for bond was tainted.”

Nordquist, on behalf of Warren, asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to remand the case back for an evidentiary hearing as to whether or not there was judicial misconduct on the part of the trial court judge that disqualified him from the defendant’s case.”

The appeals court concluded it was appropriate to remand the case for an evidentiary hearing and the development of proof regarding Meares’ alleged conduct.

The court ruled that the presiding judge, Circuit Court Division I Judge Dale Young, should initiate appointment of a new judge to preside specifically over this matter.

Young said the chief justice of the state Supreme Court will appoint a special judge to conduct the fact-finding hearing to determine if there was any wrongdoing. Young said he would start that process through the Administrative Office of the Court.

“I’ve never experienced this situation before, it got to be a very rare incident,” Young said.

Young said that while Meares is no longer on the bench, under some statutory authority, a judge who has had a hearing in connection with a case, even if he’s no longer a judge, can, if he options to do so, come back and finish up his work on that case. “Judge Meares will not be able to that until this fact-finding hearing is held and the Criminal Court of Appeals makes a ruling on it,” Young said.

Young said the Criminal Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over the whole case. That body has contempt powers to punish a judge in such a matter if they found wrongdoing, Young said.

“I’m not sure whether the Court of the Judiciary has control over him or whether the board of professional responsibility has supervisory authority of his actions as judge,” Young said.

During the recent election for the Division II seat, General Sessions Judge David Duggan ran against Meares. The race was often contentious with Meares calling into question Local Rules he said Young established without properly notifying the public. Young said Meares was simply creating political scandal by criticizing a process that had worked for years and was legal.

Young said the situation touched on by the Criminal Court of Appeals wasn’t political in nature. “I can say that no politician made a complaint against him. It was the defense in the case where the other lawyer has complained of wrongdoing, not any elected official.

Sue Allison, public information officer, Administrative Office of the Courts, said senior judges are available to be designated as special judges. “They are generally the ones designated. We have a senior judge available to hear case when a trial judge needs to recuse themselves for one thing or another,” Allison said.

The Criminal Court of Appeals handed down their decision on Sept. 12. Days later, on Sept. 16, in an unrelated matter, Judges Young, Duggan and Chancellor Telford Forgety signed an order recusing themselves from 66 pending cases and any future cases involving Meares and Associates, the firm of Martha Meares. While the judges do not mention the heated Circuit Court Division II campaign between Meares and Duggan, they said their actions were motivated by the fair administration of justice and to prevent even the appearance of impropriety.

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