DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — An Iowa court official on Wednesday ordered an independent investigation into a retired state judge who admitted that he allowed attorneys on the winning side to ghost-write opinions in at least 200 cases.
State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio appointed Senior Judge Robert Hutchison and retired court administrator David Boyd to review retired Plymouth County Judge Edward Jacobson’s admission last year that he requested opinions from attorneys on one side of cases without the knowledge of the other side. The purpose of the investigation is not to determine whether Jacobson violated any laws or rules but to review his processes and to “document any questionable and/or improper practices found,” Nuccio’s directive states.
The investigation came a day after Chief Justice Mark Cady issued a warning to judges and attorneys that they need to follow the Iowa Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits what is known in legal terms as ex parte communications — conferring with one side of a case without the knowledge of the other side. Cady on Tuesday signed a supervisory order requiring all of the state’s judges to attend one hour of continuing legal education by July 31 on the judicial conduct rules.
“The court believes that just a single violation of this admonition by one judge in one case threatens not only the fair resolution of that case but the reputation of the bench, bar and entire system of justice,” Cady wrote.
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The investigators appointed by Nuccio are to assess to what extent communications between judges and one side of a case occurs and determine whether such communications have an impact on the improper use of proposed orders. They also are to look into how court orders are tracked in the current electronic filing system.
The investigators were given the authority to review Jacobson’s emails, which the administrator has ordered retained; interview Jacobson if he’s willing; and talk to other court employees.
A report with recommendations is due June 2.
Jacobson shocked Iowa’s legal community in November when he admitted during a deposition in a divorce case that he requested attorneys for the winning side of a case to write up the decision and email it to him privately at least 200 times in his 16 years on the bench. Jacobsen said he would have his clerk proofread the attorney’s submission, then file it with his own signature — all without the knowledge of the opposing attorney.
“I don’t have any problem telling one counsel to do it without telling the other counsel I told them to do it,” he said in the deposition.
Jacobson maintains he violated no rules. He declined to comment on the court administrator’s directive or Cady’s supervisory order, saying it is premature for him to say anything. He said he’s hired attorneys to represent him.
Cady said in his Tuesday order that judges talking to an attorney for one side of a case is inconsistent with legal advocacy, undermines fairness and creates the appearance of bias and partiality.
Jacobson, who was appointed to the bench by Democratic former Gov. Tom Vilsack in October 2001, retired in October at age 69. He remains a licensed attorney in Iowa.
Attorney Rosanne Plante filed a complaint about Jacobson with the state’s Attorney Disciplinary Board, which hears professional conduct complaints about attorneys. It’s unclear whether his actions on the bench are under investigation since complaints before the disciplinary board are confidential unless they are referred to the Iowa Supreme Court for public reprimand, suspension or termination.
Plante represented Elisabeth Treiber, a woman fighting her daughter’s father in a child custody case, and believes the case was resolved with one of Jacobson’s ghost-written orders.
“I have decided as a lifelong Iowan and an Iowa attorney since 1996 that someone must become the leader on this issue to ensure Iowans receive fair and just treatment in the court system,” Plante said.
Treiber said Jacobson sided with her daughter’s father on all issues. She also blames the lawyers who secretly wrote opinions for Jacobson.
“I would just think this is a huge mark against the judicial system in Iowa and I would hope that there is some swift action in the works,” said Trieber, a paralegal.