Some lawmakers want a thorough study of a part of state government that operates outside public view — the commission that investigates complaints of misconduct against judges.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, are sponsoring legislation that would prompt an examination of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, known by its acronym JIRC.
“I want to shine a spotlight on JIRC to ensure it is functioning as intended,” Hope said in a statement. “I would venture to say most Virginians are largely unaware of this important Commission and the very crucial function it serves to help the judiciary. This study will help determine whether the JIRC is providing the necessary accountability and oversight and whether we can make improvements to this important body.”
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The study would be done by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, which conducts oversight of state agencies at the request of the Virginia General Assembly.
What is JIRC?
The General Assembly approves the commission’s seven members, who investigate allegations of judicial misconduct or serious mental or physical disability among judges. Members consist of three judges, two lawyers and two citizens who are not lawyers.
JIRC’s current members are Northumberland Juvenile Court Judge Shannon O. Hoehl; Gloucester General District Court Judge Stephanie E. Merritt; Portsmouth Circuit Court Judge Kenneth R. Melvin; attorneys Humes J. Franklin III and Kyung “Kathryn” Dickerson; and citizen members Terrie N. Thompson and Cozy Bailey.
JIRC’s general counsel is Ray Morrogh, a former commonwealth’s attorney in Fairfax County who lost re-election in a June 2019 Democratic primary.
Anyone can make a complaint in writing about a judge to the commission.
Everything about the complaint remains confidential unless JIRC finds the complaint to be serious enough to be filed at the Supreme Court of Virginia, which is rare.
“The Court may dismiss the complaint or it may retire, censure or remove the judge,” according to JIRC’s website.
JIRC dismisses most complaints
The commission’s most recent annual report, from November, says JIRC received 395 complaints in the prior 12 months.
Most of those complaints were made by the public, but 16 came from lawyers, four came from judges and two came from court employees.
Of the 395 complaints, 371 were dismissed. The commission found that many of them did not fall within the commission’s jurisdiction or state a violation of the Canons of Judicial Conduct — the rules of ethical conduct for Virginia’s judges.
JIRC found that in five cases, a judge breached the canons, but it dismissed the complaint, the report said. One case remained active when the report was filed.
Lawmakers want more information
Boysko, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she has heard questions about how judges are held accountable for misconduct.
Other than impeachment, which is extremely rare, JIRC is the only source of judicial accountability, she said.
As a lawmaker, Boysko said she does not have a good understanding of how JIRC operates.
“Somebody used the word ‘black hole,’” she said. “I know that people make JIRC complaints and file them, and then nothing is ever revealed about anything.”
Boysko said she understands protecting the integrity of a judge, but there’s not enough public feedback about what happens in the cases.
The study — which would be done in 2023, if approved — would include examining the procedures and people responsible for reviewing complaints, the process for whether to hold hearings, and the qualifications of the commission members to ensure proper judicial oversight. It would also recommend ways to improve and increase transparency.
The Senate Rules Committee on Friday morning advanced Boysko’s proposal without any opposition. The commission had no comment for this story.