Our View: Tillett’s conduct deserved more than public reprimand

The Daily Advance

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After initially throwing the proverbial book at Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett with a 12-page list of charges, the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission turned around and allowed the region’s top judicial official off the hook with an even bigger proverbial slap on the wrist.

In an agreement settling the charges of judicial misconduct against Tillett on March 6, the commission elected not to recommend his removal from the bench. Although its own investigation of Tillett’s personal vendettas against the Kill Devil Hills Police Department and District Attorney’s Office certainly supported that step, the commission instead decided just to scold the judge with a “public reprimand.”

Under the terms of what the commission considers discipline, Tillett “recognizes and admits” that his conduct over the past several years was “reasonably perceived as coercive and retaliatory” and “prejudicial to the administration of justice.” But aside from “expressing regret” for that conduct, agreeing to stay out of the internal affairs of the KDH Police Department, averring that he won’t retaliate against those who cooperated with the commission’s investigation, and assuring the commission that he will “exercise caution and restraint in the future,” the reprimand doesn’t really cost Tillett much.

Talk about a sweet plea deal.

For some reason the commission couldn’t bring itself to follow its own evidence and remove Tillett from office. It had ample cause to do so, given Tillett’s blatant misuse of judicial authority, recklessly arrogant intimidation of law enforcement officials, and his waste of precious taxpayer resources.

Tillett’s misconduct started with his bad decision in April 2010 to meet, as a judge in his judicial chambers, with Kill Devil town and police officials to discuss a KDH police officer’s brief detention of his adult son. It ended with his equally bad decision late last year to appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court an appeals court ruling overturning his also bad decision to require KDH officials to surrender copies of town employees’ personnel records to his office.

Tillett’s behavior during that roughly 2½-year span has been well documented, including by the commission’s own investigation. In its findings, the commission said the judge’s conduct “created a public perception of a conflict of interest which threatens the public’s faith and confidence in (Tillett’s) integrity and impartiality.”

In the language it used to settle the charges, the commission suggested Tillett has learned something from the reprimand, but we question whether that’s true.

The judge himself hasn’t commented on the reprimand, but one of the attorneys he’s tapped to speak for him, John Trimpi of the Elizabeth City-based Trimpi and Nash firm, spoke to The Daily Advance the day the settlement was made public. Far from saying Tillett was sorry and apologized for his actions, Trimpi appeared to suggest the judge hadn’t done anything wrong. Trimpi said Tillett’s “efforts to better the administration of justice were well-intentioned,” and that while others might believe Tillett had gone too far, Trimpi didn’t “share that opinion.”

Tillett hasn’t rebuked those remarks, so can the public assume he shares Trimpi’s views? He shouldn’t. There was nothing “well-intentioned” about what Tillett put the town of Kill Devil Hills and its officials through over the past three years pursing his obsession to fire its police chief. There also was nothing “well-intentioned” about Tillett’s efforts to intimidate District Attorney Frank Parrish into removing Britt, including threatening to have him arrested. And while some may not think the judge’s behavior went too far, we’d wager Britt, Parrish and the taxpayers of Kill Devil Hills don’t “share that opinion.”

If the commission couldn’t bring itself to remove Tillett from office, it seems the least it could have done is recommend some punishments that required more of Tillett than just to promise not to repeat his bad behavior in the future.

For starters, the panel could have recommended Tillett write letters of public apology to Britt, Parrish, and to town officials and the taxpayers of Kill Devil Hills for subjecting them to the whims of his personal obsessions and vendettas. By requiring Tillett also to reimburse the town of Kill Devil Hills for its legal fees, the panel could have saved the town the further expense of having to sue Tillett to recover its costs responding to the judge’s pursuit of what amounted to a personal feud with the town. For good measure, we also don’t see why the commission couldn’t have recommended Tillett be forced to surrender his title of “Senior Resident” Superior Court judge.

Finally, it probably would have been a good idea to require Tillett to hold court outside the 1st Judicial District — if not for the duration of his judicial career, at least for a time. Given Tillett’s efforts to intimidate Parrish into removing the KDH police chief and his threats to have Parrish arrested, there are legitimate questions about his ability to be fair to the District Attorney’s Office as it pursues justice in the 1st Judicial District.

There’s an old saw about the courthouse being the last place to go if you’re seeking justice. Decisions like the one the Judicial Standards Commission made slapping Judge Tillett’s wrist do little to dispel that notion.

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