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Alabama judge returns to bench after suspension for insensitive remarks

The Mobile County judge, who has a reputation for frank speech bordering on racism, ageism and homophobia, called Alabama’s 78-year-old governor “Gov. MeMaw” in a court order.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CN) — In several instances since he first took the bench in 2017, Mobile County Circuit Court Judge James Patterson confidently walked right up to the line of judicial ethics, brazenly crossed it in full view of plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, juries and others, but later recognized the error of his ways and apologized.

Patterson was suspended from the bench in June after the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission filed a 37-page complaint alleging he abused his authority and exhibited inappropriate demeanor and temperament in the courtroom.

On Thursday, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary accepted an agreement that included Patterson’s censure, but otherwise afforded him a second chance on the bench.

Patterson’s indiscretions through the years have been well documented by both the commission and local media. Perhaps most notably, in April 2020 he issued an order in a civil case referring to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey — at 78-years-old, the nation’s oldest governor  — as “Gov. MeMaw.”

Days earlier, as a result of the burgeoning Covid-19 pandemic, Ivey had issued a statewide “stay-at-home” order, complicating court scheduling both in-person and online. After Patterson’s order was widely shared by the legal community and state media, he issued an apology to Ivey, fellow judges and judicial administrators, admitting the remark was “idiotic” and a “poor attempt at humor.” 

But the commission also noted it wasn’t an isolated incident, as both before and afterward, he repeated the insult in the presence of others. Further, the panel cited Patterson for referring to the chief judge of his own circuit as a “goddamn snowflake,” while a former court reporter documented his regular use of casual profanity including “fuck, shit, bastard, ass and asshole.”

Crassly, he spelled out the word "bullshit" when referring to an attorney’s argument and separately, he called the court’s financial condition “dead ass broke” and “broke ass” on the record. 

In 2019, Patterson used an Asian accent to ask potential jurors if everyone spoke proper “Engrish.” There was an Asian American in the jury pool and Patterson issued an immediate apology, later following up with a meandering public apology on his Facebook page, which also targeted court funding and liberals.

Patterson has been known as an aggressive spokesman for a greater level of court funding from the state, a passion that eventually led to the charge of abusing his authority. While presiding over a 2018 criminal case, Patterson issued several orders which veered off topic and into the subject of court funding.

At one point, he issued an injunction in the case “declaring certain Alabama statutes unconstitutional as applied” and ordering the circuit clerk "to withhold 10% of court fees and costs collected until the state adequately and reasonably funded” the office. The Alabama Supreme Court ultimately reversed his order.

The commission also accused Patterson of making certain juries, attorneys, defendants and citizens in the gallery uncomfortable with various crude remarks, including telling one male defendant he would be “butt-raped in the penitentiary,” suggesting to at least one male defendant he would become another prisoner’s “girlfriend” and appearing to mock or threaten a defense attorney with a physical altercation by standing up and beginning to unzip his robe.

In other instances not cited by the commission, Patterson was lightly reprimanded by the Alabama Supreme Court in 2020, which took note of an order in which he instructed an attorney to apologize to his own clients. The order itself was moot by the time of the high court's review, but the court took the opportunity to remind Patterson “that a judge is expected to maintain ‘the decorum and temperance befitting his office,’ and should be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom he deals with in his official capacity.” 

Separately, a Mobile-based weekly newspaper reported this year that Patterson once required parties in a divorce case to settle the sensitive issue of division of property by playing a game of “rock-paper-scissors” in court. 

Thursday's agreement was unanimously approved by the special panel of judges from around the state. Patterson pleaded guilty to the two ethics charges, but parties agreed the behavior did not constitute a crime, nor was it motivated by financial gain. It was also noted “that his motives in addressing court funding were appropriate, albeit misguided, and that he cooperated with the Commission’s investigation.”

Other sanctions against Patterson include a 45-day suspension without pay. Since he has already been suspended since June, he will be allowed to return to work immediately, but he will not be paid until his 46th day of service. 

He must also complete 15 hours of professional development education on judicial ethics, to include at least three hours of training on cultural sensitivity. Further, he must meet with a court-approved mentor for at least six months and submit periodic progress reports to the Commission.

The Alabama Court of the Judiciary is convened to hear complaints against judges deemed credible by the Judicial Inquiry Commission, but such complaints are relatively rare. Patterson’s case was just the 62nd reviewed by the Court since 1973, for an average of slightly more than one case per year. Yet far more complaints are actually submitted to the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which is allowed to conduct any subsequent investigation in secrecy. 

According to its own data, of 179 complaints against judges investigated in 2021, 157 were dismissed without investigation “on the Commission's findings each complaint did not present either a reasonable basis to charge, a claim within the Commission's jurisdiction, or an ethical violation, or a combination of any of those three.”

Last year the commission completed an investigation of 20 complaints which were later dismissed without charges, but it filed charges against four judges in the Court of the Judiciary. In one case, a probate judge in Talladega County was removed from the bench for racist and sexist comments. In Jefferson County, another judge was removed for allegations of mental instability and drug use. 

During the court’s brief hearing Thursday, Patterson’s attorney Reggie Copeland Jr. testified that Patterson voluntarily and immediately complied with the commission’s investigation, which spanned two years and included the testimony of 11 witnesses.

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