Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Joseph “Rusty” Johnston began an extended leave of absence from the bench this week, according to multiple courthouse sources.
“Yes, Judge Johnston is on leave and that’s all I can say,” a court clerk in Johnston’s office told Lagniappe Wednesday.
While no one would say on the record why Johnston took leave, lawyers who spoke with Lagniappe on condition of anonymity also said Johnston has earned a reputation over the past couple years for starting court late or suddenly canceling or rescheduling hearings, a situation particularly problematic for cases involving expert witnesses flown in from out of town to testify.While Johnston has long been one of the Mobile bench’s more outspoken and colorful jurists, his rift with defense attorneys Donald and Jonathan Friedlander also drew recent media attention. It began during a criminal case against Rudolph Lemetrick Agnew, who was charged with first-degree assault and second-degree possession of marijuana after wreck he was involved in three years prior left a Mobile police motorcycle officer with significant injuries.
During that case, Johnston abruptly declared a mistrial based on the “lawyers’ conduct,” which prompted defense attorneys Donald and Jonathan Friedlander to file a bar complaint against Johnston and ask him to recuse himself from the pending retrial.
That case was later dismissed after Circuit Judge Graddick found Johnston had no legally valid reason to declare a mistrial. The Friedlander’s later entered a plea for double jeopardy, which included transcripts from the original trial, that argued their behavior had been in line with proper courtroom practices. It went to declare Johnston had “no legal basis” for any of his rulings or comments.
After he was asked to recuse himself from the retrial, Johnston issued an eight-page response accusing the Friedlanders of “sub-par and ineffective assistance” and included several other scathing comments.
Lagniappe attempted to determine whether the matter made its way before Alabama’s Judicial Inquiry Commission, however the JIC can’t confirm or deny the receipt of any complaint.
Jenny Garrett, executive director of the commission, said the provisions that set up the JIC in 1973 established that all proceedings are confidential.
“Alabama’s supreme court has subsequently ruled that confidentiality is restricted only to the commission and its staff,” Garrett said of the organization’s general procedures. She added that neither the original parties filing a JIC complaint or the subject of the complaint would be prevented from discussing a pending investigation.
Jonathan Friedlander declined to comment on this report, and multiple calls to Johnston and other members of the circuit court, including Graddick, were not returned.
Graddick told other media outlets last week that Johnston would be on “medical leave” until May 15, and his docket will handled by retired judge Jim Wood in the mean time.
Johnston was appointed by Gov. Fob James in 1997, becoming the first Republican to ever hold a circuit or district judgeship in Mobile County. He was subsequently reelected in 1998, 2000 and 2006, according to the court’s website.
Updated at 9:58, Feb. 11, to clarify the outcome of the Agnew case