PATRICK WILSON Richmond Times-Dispatch
RICHMOND — Some lawmakers want an in-depth study of a part of state government that operates outside of public view — the commission that investigates complaints of misconduct against judges.
Of the. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, are sponsoring legislation that would prompt a review by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, known by its acronym JIRC.
“I want to shine the spotlight on the JIRC to make sure it works as intended,” Hope said in a statement. “I would venture to say that most Virginians are largely unaware of this important Commission and the very crucial function it performs in assisting the judiciary. This study will help determine if the JIRC is providing the necessary accountability and oversight and if we can make improvements to this important body.
The study would be conducted by the Joint Audit and Legislative Review Commission, which audits state agencies at the request of the Virginia General Assembly.
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What is the JIRC?
The General Assembly approves the seven-member commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct or serious mental or physical disability among judges. The members consist of three judges, two lawyers and two citizens who are not lawyers.
Current members of the JIRC are: Northumberland Juvenile Court Judge Shannon O. Hoehl; Gloucester General District Court Judge Stephanie E. Merritt; Portsmouth Circuit Court Judge Kenneth R. Melvin; attorney Humes J. Franklin III; attorney Kyung “Kathryn” Dickerson; and Citizen Members Terrie N. Thompson and Cozy Bailey.
The JIRC’s general counsel is Ray Morrogh, a former Commonwealth lawyer from Fairfax County who lost a re-election bid in a June 2019 Democratic primary.
Anyone can file a complaint in writing against a judge with the commission.
Everything about the complaint remains confidential unless the JIRC deems the complaint serious enough to file in the Supreme Court of Virginia, which is rare.
“The Court may dismiss the complaint or remove, censure or remove the judge,” according to the JIRC website.
JIRC dismisses most complaints
The commission’s latest annual report, from November, says the JIRC had received 395 complaints in the previous 12 months.
Most of these complaints were filed by the public, but 16 were from lawyers, four from judges and two 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 claim a violation of the Canons of Judicial Conduct, the rules of ethical conduct for judges in Virginia.
The JIRC found that in five cases a judge violated the canons, but dismissed the complaint, according to the report. One case remained active at the time of filing the report.
Lawmakers want more information
Boysko, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she heard questions about how judges are held accountable for misconduct. Other than impeachment, which is extremely rare, the JIRC is the only source of judicial liability, she said.
As a legislator, she said she did not fully understand how the JIRC works.
“Someone used the word ‘black hole,'” she said. “I know people file complaints with the JIRC and file them and then nothing is ever revealed about anything.”
She said she understands protecting a judge’s integrity, but there isn’t enough public comment on what’s going on in the cases.
The study – which, if approved, would be completed in 2023 – would include reviewing the procedures and individuals responsible for reviewing complaints, the process for conducting hearings, the qualifications of commission members to ensure appropriate judicial review, and recommend ways to improve and increase transparency.
The Senate Rules Committee on Friday morning advanced Boysko’s proposal without any opposition. The commission has not commented on this story.