Note: The following questions and answers were originally prepared by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, and are used with their permission. They were updated in 2018 to reflect current practice and to more accurately describe the functioning of Pennsylvania’s system of judicial discipline.
Before Filing a Complaint
What kinds of allegations will the Board consider?
The Judicial Conduct Board (“Board”) does not have the authority to consider all allegations involving judges. It is important to know this before you go to the trouble of filing a complaint.
For example, the Board will not review or change any legal ruling or pass judgment on a judge’s exercise of discretion regardless of the correctness of that ruling or exercise of discretion. These complaints of “legal error” can only be considered by courts created by the Constitution to hear cases on appeal.
There are, however, many other types of conduct that the Board will consider. Generally speaking, these fall into two categories:
- Mental or Physical Disability. This means that a judge is either mentally or physically unable to perform the duties of a judge.
- Ethical Misconduct. Most complaints brought to the Board fit within this category, which covers a broad range of improper or unprofessional behaviors. Since there is no precise definition of what will be considered “ethical misconduct, “you have to make that determination for yourself. This is not always easy to do. For guidance, you might review examples of conduct that the Board has found to warrant discipline. These include:
- Committing a crime
- Extreme and unjustifiable delay in deciding cases
- Accepting football tickets from a litigant in a pending case
- Being intoxicated on the bench
- Operating illegal video poker machines
- Using vulgar and profane language in court
- Sexual harassment
- Inappropriate demeanor directed at litigants, lawyers or court staff
Can I file a complaint against any Pennsylvania judge?
The Board will only consider complaints against the following:
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices
- Superior and Commonwealth Court Judges
- Common Pleas Court Judges
- Philadelphia Municipal Court Judges
- Magisterial District Judges
The Board will not consider complaints against the following (even if they work in Pennsylvania):
- Federal judges such as circuit court judges, district judges, magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges
- Individuals who perform judicial or quasi-judicial functions such as divorce masters and arbitrators
- Individuals who work for the court system such as court administrators, clerks or prothonotaries
- Elected officials who are not judges
- Attorneys (Non-judges)
- Unemployment or workers compensation judges
- Administrative law judges
Will the Board consider complaints against former judges?
If the judge against whom you have a complaint is no longer on the bench, the Board may still consider your complaint as long as it involves conduct that occurred while the judge was on the bench.
Are there any time limits on the filing of complaints?
The Board will generally not consider any complaint where the alleged misconduct took place more than four years before the date a complaint is filed with the Board. If the allegations involve a pattern of recurring misconduct, the Board may consider earlier acts as long as the last episode happened within four years of the date a complaint is filed.
Filing a Complaint
How do I file a complaint?
Anyone can file a complaint free of charge. You do not need a lawyer to file a complaint against a judge. To begin the complaint process, fill out a “Confidential Request for Investigation” form. The form may be obtained from the Board’s website or by contacting the Board in writing or by telephone. After you have completed the form, submit it to the Board by mail. Forms may not be submitted electronically (i.e. by e-mail). All complaints must be made in writing. No complaints will be taken over the telephone. Completed forms must be mailed to the following address:
Judicial Conduct Board
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
601 Commonwealth Avenue
P.O. Box 62525
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 17106-2525
What does the “Confidential Request for Investigation” ask?
All complaints must identify the judge against whom the complaint is being filed and specify the allegations upon which the complaint is based. If a court case is involved, you will be asked for relevant information related to the case, such as the court docket number and the names of lawyers on both sides. You may also send the Board copies of documents to support your allegations but they will not be returned. To speed the process along, it helps to give the Board as much information as you possibly can.
You must sign the Confidential Request for Investigation. The form includes a statement that it is made under penalties of perjury. Anyone who knowingly files a false complaint may face criminal charges.
Do I have to identify myself when I file a complaint?
No, but it is strongly encouraged that you do. Although the Board does accept anonymous complaints, they are much more difficult to investigate.
The Judicial Conduct Board
Who sits on the Board?
The Judicial Conduct Board consists of three judges, three lawyers and six non-lawyers. Half of the Board members are appointed by the Governor, the other half by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
What does the Board do once a complaint is received?
The first step in the discipline process involves a preliminary inquiry into a complaint by the Board’s staff. During this stage, you or other witnesses may be interviewed and documents other than those provided with your complaint may be reviewed. Once there is sufficient information to conclude the preliminary inquiry, the full Board will review the complaint.
At this stage, the Board is most likely to make one of two choices:
Dismiss the complaint because it is clear that the allegations do not warrant disciplinary action against the accused judge; or
Authorize a full investigation to determine if there is “clear and convincing evidence” of misconduct that warrants disciplinary action against the accused judge
After a full investigation is authorized and conducted, the Board makes one of two choices:
File formal charges against the accused judge upon finding there is probable cause to file formal charges in the Court of Judicial Discipline.
Dismiss the complaint upon finding there is no probable cause to file formal charges in the Court of Judicial Discipline.
Dismiss the complaint when it concludes that while there is probable cause to file formal charges in the Court of Judicial Discipline, considering all facts and circumstances and mitigating factors, including lack of prior disciplinary history, dismissal is an appropriate disposition.
Are complaints to the Board confidential?
Documents (including complaints) and evidence obtained by the Board are confidential. The Board and its staff will not answer any questions about the existence or status of a complaint. During the preliminary inquiry, the accused judge often does not even know about a pending complaint.
If the Board decides to do a full investigation, the accused judge will be notified and given an opportunity to respond to the charges. It is up to the Board to decide whether or not to identify the complainant to the judge.
Even if the Board discloses no information, the fact that an investigation is going on sometimes becomes known to the public. If this happens, the accused judge can request that the Board issue a statement to confirm an ongoing investigation, clarify the procedural aspects of the proceedings, explain the judge’s right to a fair hearing and provide the judge’s response to the complaint.
Does the Board talk to the accused judge?
Sometimes the Board wants to hear from the accused judge. If so, the Board can compel the judge to testify by issuing a subpoena.
Are Board proceedings open to the public?
Generally speaking, no. Almost all Board meetings and proceedings are closed to the public. This protects complainants from retaliation by accused judges and protects judges from the embarrassment of complaints that have no merit. An accused judge can waive confidentiality with respect to Board discussions involving that judge’s individual case, but this happens only rarely.
How long does it take before the Board makes a decision on a complaint?
There are no fixed time limits within which the Board must act on a complaint. This is primarily because it is hard to pinpoint how long an investigation will take.
Do I have any right to appeal if the Board dismisses my complaint?
If the Board dismisses your complaint, you will be notified. However, that decision is final and cannot be appealed.
If it later turns out that the accused judge has misrepresented or knowingly hidden information or in anyway obstructed a Board investigation, the Board may reinvestigate the allegations raised in your complaint. This can also happen if other complaints are filed that allege similar misconduct by the same judge within two years after the Board dismisses your complaint.
The Court of Judicial Discipline
Who sits on the Court?
The Court of Judicial Discipline (“Court”) consists of four judges, two lawyers and two non-lawyers. Half of the Court members are appointed by the Governor, the other half by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
How does a case come before the Court?
A case comes before the Court only if the Board decides there is probable cause to file formal charges against a judge.
What does the Court do once formal charges are filed?
The Court operates likes a regular trial court and holds hearings on charges brought by the Board. The Board’s lawyers act as the prosecutor and present the case in support of the charges. Charges must be proved by “clear and convincing evidence. ” The Court then decides whether or not discipline is warranted and, if so, what kind of discipline is appropriate.
Are Court proceedings open to the public?
Absolutely. Once a case reaches the Court, it is no longer confidential and all proceedings are open to the public.
Is the identity of complainants confidential once formal charges are filed?
Once formal charges are filed, there is no guarantee that a complainant’s identity will remain confidential.
Will I have to testify before the Court?
Possibly. If you have relevant information concerning a complaint, you may be required to testify, by subpoena, if necessary. Often a complainant is the only eyewitness to judicial misconduct and has testimony that is crucial.
Although some complainants are unwilling or reluctant to testify, the Board may not be able to prove its case without that testimony.
Does the accused judge have to testify before the Court?
Just like in a criminal trial, the accused judge may testify but is not required to do so. In other words, the judge cannot be forced to testify.
Once formal charges are filed with the Court, how long does it take before the Court makes its decision?
There is no fixed time limit within which the Court must make its decision.
What kind of discipline can the Court impose on a judge?
If the Court finds “clear and convincing evidence” of misconduct, it can impose various types of discipline including:
- Suspension for a specified time period, with or without pay
- Permanent removal from office
The harsher punishments may result in loss of retirement benefits as well.
If a judge is found to be either mentally or physically disabled, the Court may order limitations on the judge’s activities or retirement from the bench.
Can the Court impeach a judge?
Many people believe that impeachment is done through the judicial discipline process–but this is not how it happens.
According to the Pennsylvania Constitution, a judge can only be impeached for “misbehavior in office” by the state House of Representatives. Articles of impeachment are then presented to the state Senate, whose members decide on either conviction or acquittal.
If convicted, a judge is removed from office and disqualified to hold any future state office of “trust or profit.”
Appealing a Decision of the Court of Judicial Discipline
Can a judge appeal a Court ruling imposing discipline?
A judge who has been disciplined by the Court of Judicial Discipline has a right to appeal that ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
If the person disciplined is a justice of the Supreme Court, that justice’s appeal will be heard instead by a special tribunal of seven judges chosen by lot from the Superior and Commonwealth Courts.
Can I appeal if the Court dismisses the Board’s charges?
Only the Board can appeal a Court ruling dismissing formal charges against a judge. As with a judge’s appeal, the Board’s appeal is made to the Supreme Court (or special tribunal if the accused judge is a Supreme Court justice).
What is the Supreme Court’s or special tribunal’s role in judicial discipline?
The Supreme Court (or special tribunal) handles judicial discipline matters in the same way other cases on appeal are handled. Its role is to review what happened before the Court of Judicial Discipline, such as the conduct of the trial and other questions of law.
The Supreme Court (or special tribunal) cannot consider new evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Court of Judicial Discipline.