DETROIT (CN) – The former head of Michigan’s judicial disciplinary board claims he was fired for recommending a formal complaint be filed against a child-jailing judge, disagreeing with the view that she is “a good judge who had a bad day.”
Paul J. Fischer began working for Michigan’s Judicial Tenure Commission in January 2001, according to a Wayne County Circuit Court lawsuit he filed Friday against the state and the commission.
The commission is the state’s independent judicial disciplinary agency that is tasked with overseeing the conduct of about 600 judges. It is authorized to investigate claims of judicial misconduct and make recommendations to the Michigan Supreme Court. Fischer was the JTC’s executive director and general counsel until his termination in September.
On June 24, 2015, Judge Lisa Gorcyca of the Oakland County Circuit Court, while presiding over a domestic relations case assigned to her, found three children between 9 and 13 years old in contempt of the court and sent them to a juvenile detention for 17 days for refusing to “have a healthy relationship with [their] father,” court records show.
“The actions of Judge Gorcyca received worldwide attention, including a video of the June 24, 2015 hearing going viral, exposing Judge Gorcyca’s egregious behavior on a national scale and leading many media commentators to characterize her conduct as highly abusive toward the minor children,” the complaint states.
Fischer says he was legally required to pursue allegations of judicial misconduct and do so impartially, even if it was “unpopular.”
On July 10, 2015, Fischer sent an email to JTC members asking to proceed with an informal investigation into Judge Gorcyca’s conduct, according to the complaint. He says three commissioners recused themselves from the mater after receiving the email.
The commission ultimately approved Fischer’s recommendation, the lawsuit states, and in August 2015 Fischer recommended issuing a “28-day letter,” a prerequisite to filing a formal complaint.
After his 28-day letter recommendation, Fischer claims one commissioner said he had “a real reservation about bringing a formal complaint” but approved sending the 28-day letter to hear Gorcyca’s side of the story.
Fischer says another commissioner recommended only a public censure against the judge, and became hostile toward him after the JTC approved his recommendation for a formal complaint.
After the formal complaint was filed, about 50 people identifying themselves as lawyers signed a document and press release supporting Judge Gorcyca. Their support of the judge became a topic of discussion at the JTC’s Jan. 11, 2016, meeting, according to Fischer’s lawsuit.
“The commissioners articulated and seemed to adopt the construct argued by the supporting lawyers: that Judge Gorcyca was a ‘good judge who had a bad day,'” the complaint states.
When asked about ongoing executive sessions at JTC meetings that excluded Fischer, according to the complaint, “Commissioner 1 responded both times with a ‘Yeah, well…’ and nothing more, and shrugged his shoulders at the same time in the face-to-face encounter. No action was taken by Commissioner 1 to discontinue the improper executive sessions.”
The Michigan Supreme Court appointed retired Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Ryan to serve as the hearing master.
On July 1, Ryan concluded that Gorcyca engaged in judicial misconduct and issued a 34-page report, the complaint states.
Shortly after Ryan’s report was issued, one commissioner allegedly revoked his recusal without giving a reason. Fischer says no other “un-recusal” ever occurred in the 16 years he worked for the JTC.
Fischer urged the JTC to affirm Ryan’s report of judicial misconduct and proposed a recommendation for a nine-month unpaid suspension and $12,000 fine, according to his lawsuit.
In response, he says he was fired after an executive session during the JTC’s Sept. 12 meeting.
“Approximately 45 minutes later, Commissioner 1 and Commissioner 3 came into Fischer’s office and notified him that effective immediately he was terminated as the JTC’s Executive Director and General Counsel,” the complaint states.
Fischer says when he asked for an explanation, he was told by commissioner 3, “we told you not to speak against the JTC” and “we don’t like the twists some of the investigations have taken.”
Two months later, the JTC suspended Gorcyca without pay for 30 days for judicial misconduct, according to the complaint.
Fischer seeks compensatory damages for an alleged violation of the Michigan Whistleblower Protection Act. He is represented by Michael L. Pitt with Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers in Royal Oak, Mich.
State administrators did not respond Monday to a request for comment, and the JTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent Tuesday.