by Max Brantley
The Arkansas Supreme Court today ordered Circuit Judge Willard Proctor of Little Rock removed from the bench immediately.
The decision came in an unannounced filing on the court's website about mid-afternoon. Normally, court opinions are issued on Thursday. Having reached its decision that Proctor's ethical missteps merited removal, the court apparently wanted to waste no time.
Here's the opinion. It was unanimous, with two special justices sitting for justices who did not take part.
The order took effect immediately. Proctor was informed by the Supreme Court clerk, Leslie Steen. Vann Smith, administrative judge of the circuit based in Pulaski County, said he'd notified other judges who will rotate into Proctor's court to handle cases until Gov. Mike Beebe can appoint an interim judge to serve until an election.
The Court specifically said Proctor would have no rehearing opportunity. Also, he was removed under terms of a statute that specifies that he may not run for or be appointed as judge in the future.
Judge Smith said Proctor's criminal docket is of most concern. There are some cases in progress where a mistrial might be possible, Smith said, but judges will work to avoid that.
Neither Proctor nor his attorney could be reached for comment. No one answered the phone in his office.
In deciding to remove Proctor, the court found a pattern of conduct, which -- however well-intentioned it might have been -- exhibited "poor judgment."
The Court's 64-page opinion upheld virtually all of the state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission's findings that Proctor had repeatedly violated ethical canons -- particularly in relationships with defendants in his court, including one who was a guest in his home, and in the operation of the nonprofit Cycle Breakers probation program, which he started and whose financial operations were commingled with his court operations.
Proctor's actions first came to wide public attention in Mara Leveritt's Arkansas Times cover story on questionable activities of Cycle Breakers. Proctor assessed fees in his court that were payable to the organization. He used the promise of those fees to borrow money for a controversial building purchase. At one time, he dreamed of making the probation program a nationwide rehabilitation effort. This, and other violations the Court said, cast doubt on his ability to act impartially as a judge.
Proctor has continued to preside as if his future wasn't in doubt. He's reportedly worked on a future training retreat for staff this spring. His recent unusual activities in court have been taking breaks in trials so that his staff could participate in instructional programs in speaking Spanish. He'd also recently suggested that the courts apply for a grant to buy weapons for additional courthouse security.
The Supreme Court made some minor modifications in the commission's findings, but generally upheld the sweeping violations alleged against Proctor, notably his creation of "civil probation," a procedure that the Supreme Court ruled was outside the realm of state law, to produce fees for his probation program. The court said he'd also violated ethics rules by jailing, or threatening to jail, those who failed to pay. This effective debtor's prison was one of the most egregious of Proctor's activities that we reported in months of following the case.
The judge's conduct, the court said, was of a "grave" nature and affected public perception of the court. The court noted that, despite Proctor's vows to change his conduct, he had continued to use Cycle Breakers.
This raises an interesting point underscored in the opinion. Multiple complaints had been made four and five years ago about Proctor's abuse of the probation program. Those complaints were dismissed by previous leadership of the Judicial Discipline Commission after Proctor agreed to change his procedures. But he never did. Said the court:
While some might consider Judge Proctor’s motives admirable in that he only sought goals of rehabilitation, both the testimony before the Commission and Judge Proctor’s actions themselves clearly demonstrate that he used his position as a judge to further his personal desires and goals.
On a final note, Judge Proctor has steadfastly maintained to this court that his intentions were nothing but true. While that may be, good or true intentions do not absolve a judge of his or her ethical duties under the canons.
The court modified one alleged violation against Proctor so that it fell under a different ethical rule and in one instance disagreed that Proctor was guilty of an indisputable violation. But the opinion is mostly a recitation of firm agreement with multiple adverse findings. Justice Robert Brown, in a concurrence joined by Special Justice Paul Keith, noted some procedural shortcomings in the Judicial Commission's work, but said they didn't prejudice Proctor's case.