Supreme Court considers discipline for Missouri judge

A St. Louis judge spoke to a reporter about a pending case and made other mistakes in running her courtroom, but they don’t warrant removal from the bench, her lawyer told the Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday.

Judge Barbara Peebles’ mistakes could warrant admonishment or a public reprimand, but taking away her position as an associate circuit court judge would be too harsh, said her attorney, Ronnie White, who served on the state’s high court from 1995 until 2007.

“She made a few mistakes involving her judicial time on the bench. She talked to the press when she shouldn’t have, she probably should have closely supervised the clerk and it was clearly wrong to throw a piece of paper out of the file,” White said. “But I don’t think any of that stuff rises to the level sufficient to warrant removal from the bench.”

Missouri’s judicial disciplinary commission voted 5-1 this fall to recommend removing Peebles. The commission sustained five of nine counts of misconduct against her, including complaints of tardiness, supervision of her clerk, destruction of a court document, failing to be candid to the circuit attorney’s office about the document and a comment made to a newspaper reporter about a pending case.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the discipline case Thursday. Peebles, 52, was appointed to the bench in September 2000 by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan.

Judicial disciplinary cases before the high court are unusual. The court can remove, suspend or reprimand judges for offenses such as committing a crime, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office or incompetency.

The discipline case was the first for Judge Paul Wilson, who was appointed to the Supreme Court last month by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Jim Smith, counsel for the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline, said the panel’s recommendation should be followed. He said Peebles hadn’t been disciplined before, but that she also hadn’t been truthful with the commission.

“I would ask the court to continue to give the commission the benefit of the doubt in terms of the assessing the credibility of witnesses and to adopt the commission’s recommendation for what we consider the integrity of the judiciary and remove (Peebles) from the bench.”

The discipline commission asserts that Peebles made a “calculated plan to delay taking the bench” and instructed her clerk, Whitney Tyler, to make the day’s first docket call and announce case continuances, dismissals and warrants. Peebles reviewed the announcements and presided over disputed cases during a second docket call. Some attorneys complained about the practice, and the discipline commission reported that lawyers began calling the clerk “Judge Whitney.”

Peebles’ attorneys contend that the judge opted to start her dockets later to permit the clerk to handle uncontested housekeeping matters and make announcements. They said it was designed to streamline the process in a busy courtroom and that Peebles performed her judicial duties. In addition, they said some lawyers seemed to have been put off by Tyler’s style and mannerisms.

The discipline commission said there were particular problems in October 2011 when Peebles was gone for several weeks during a vacation to China and to attend a trial college. She arranged for substitutes to handle her full slate of cases for one week. For the others, substitutes handled part of her docket, while the clerk was instructed to continue the remaining cases.

During that period, an assistant public defender sought dismissal of a case and was turned down by Tyler, who said there was no judge and that the case would be continued. The defense lawyer took a preprinted form and added that the clerk denied the motion without a judge. The commission said Peebles discarded the document, in violation of the law.

Peeble’s attorneys deny that a law was broken and said that the document was not signed and didn’t use the courtroom’s standard form. They said Peebles discarded it because she was confused and uncertain about its origins and wasn’t trying to conceal it. White also questioned Tyler’s credibility.

In addition Thursday, the Supreme Court considered a discipline case for a St. Louis attorney who previously pleaded guilty to funneling contributions to the Missouri Democratic Party in a scheme that involved former Gov. Roger Wilson.

Prosecutors say Edward Griesedieck III’s law firm donated $5,000 to the state Democratic Party and hid the cost in legal bills submitted to state-created workers’ compensation firm Missouri Employers Mutual. Wilson used personal funds to hide an additional $3,000 contribution from the law firm. At issue Thursday was the length of a suspension for Griesedieck’s law license.

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