Attorney Christine Hernandez, left, filed a JIC complaint against Mobile County Judge Edmond Naman in January 2019.
An appeals court ruling handed down last month confirms that Mobile County Juvenile Court Judge Edmond Naman has been under investigation by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) over a complaint filed against him by a local attorney earlier this year.
As the investigative and prosecutorial body of the state’s two-tier, judicial-conduct system, the JIC has the authority to initiate and receive complaints against sitting judges concerning, among other things, any alleged violation of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics.
Former Chief Justice and U.S. Senate hopeful Roy Moore was the subject of a JIC investigation that led to his suspension from the bench in 2016. Former Mobile County Court Judge Rusty Johnston was also in the middle of a JIC investigation when he retired the year before that.
The complaint filed against Naman that led to the current investigation was sent to JIC in January by Mobile attorney Christine C. Hernandez, who is best known as one of the attorneys from the landmark Searcy v. Strange case that legalized same-sex marrage in Alabama.
Hernandez also represents parents and children in a number of juvenile court cases. Currently, Naman is one of two juvenile judges in Mobile County along with Judge George Brown. Naman also oversees the Strickland Youth Center and a number of programs for juvenile offenders.
At the moment, the nature of the allegations made in Hernandez’s complaint against Naman haven’t been confirmed publicly, as JIC proceedings are highly confidential. Neither the commission nor its staff members are able to confirm the existence of any investigation or complaint, and Naman and Hernandez have both declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Lagniappe initally.
However, on June 21, the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals confirmed that proceedings related to the JIC complaint again Naman were still being conducted in an order denying Hernandez’s request to have a judge outside the county handle the cases she still has pending in juvenile court.
Those are cases that Naman, after being notified of the JIC complaint, transferred from his own docket to Judge Brown’s. All of this happened in juvenile court, which, like JIC, has confidential proceedings not open to the public to protect the privacy of the accused.
Appeals court rulings are not private, though, and after Brown denied Hernadez’s motion seeking to have an outside judge take over Naman’s cases from him, she appealed.
In her petition to the higher court, Hernandez argued Naman’s “transfer [was] a de facto recusal” and that “Alabama law does not allow a recusing judge to appoint his replacement.” She also claimed, due to his position on the bench with Naman, Brown would have a conflict of interest as a potential witness in the ongoing JIC proceedings.
In its order, the higher court flatly rejected all of Hernandez’s contentions, writing that, as the next senior judge, Brown would have had the cases reassigned to his docket anyway. It also said she failed to produce any proof Brown planned to testify before the JIC — something he denied.
“Although we do not necessarily hold that Naman recused himself from these cases, we conclude that, if he did, his orders purporting to transfer the cases to Brown effectively followed the procedure set forth [in previous cases],” the court’s ruling reads. “Any error that Naman might have committed in recusing himself and then reassigning the cases would be harmless error in light of the fact that the law required that the cases to be reassigned to Brown.”
While the ruling was a loss for Hernandez, in issuing it, the court created a record that acknowledges for the first time publicly the existence of the JIC complaint against Naman.
It’s important to note that a JIC complaint isn’t proof of any wrongdoing on a judge’s part. A complaint is merely an allegation, but most JIC complaints do not make it to the stage in the process Naman’s appears to have already passed. The JIC reviews all of the complaints it receives, and historically, it throws most of them out before opening a formal investigation.
According to its own rules, “within 70 days after a complaint is filed” the JIC may dismiss the complaint if it determines it’s “not worthy of further action.” In 2017 — the last year annual data was released — 191 complaints were reviewed and 138 were dismissed without investigation.
Based on the language in the appeals court ruling and conversations with sources familiar with the process, the investigation of Hernandez’s complaint has already moved past that phase and witnesses have been subpoenaed to testify before the JIC in Montgomery in recent weeks.
That said, the complaint against Naman could still be dismissed without any action being taken as a result of the JIC investigation, and that wouldn’t necessarily be uncommon either. If it isn’t thrown out, though, the JIC can either handle the dispute internally or file charges against Naman with the Court of the Judiciary — the second tier of the judicial-conduct system.
In cases where charges are formally filed by the JIC, the complaint and the response from the accused judge become public, and those charges can then be prosecuted by JIC staff before the Court of the Judiciary. Any decision it reaches can be appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Update: After this story was initially published, attorney Christine Hernandez released the following statement about her JIC complaint against Naman:
“I filed a judicial inquiry petition against Judge Edmond Naman and there has been an ongoing investigation for several months. I have been subpoenaed and testified before the judicial inquiry commission and I look forward to the conclusion of the investigation. In my opinion, I believe Judge Naman has disregarded the constitutional rights of adults and juveniles that have appeared before him. In addition, I believe that Judge Naman has repeatedly disregarded Alabama statutes and handled matters and people in a manner that has been contrary to the law. He has also directed employees of the Strickland Youth Center to do things under his leadership that are improper. In my opinion, he has violated several canons of the judicial [ethics].”
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