The state Commission on Judicial Conduct has admonished a King County District Court judge for implying, in remarks from the bench, that a defendant would be raped in prison if he didn’t change his behavior.
Judge Virginia Amato, who was elected in November 2018, presided over the arraignment of a man charged with misdemeanor domestic-violence assault and resisting arrest last August, says the stipulation, agreement and order of admonishment signed June 24 by the commission’s executive director, J. Reiko Callner.
Before imposing conditions of release, Amato noted the man’s alleged crimes had been committed while he was on probation on other matters, the order says.
Even though the man had no felony convictions, and could not be sent to prison for misdemeanors, Amato is quoted in the order as telling him he was setting himself up “to be Bubba’s new best girlfriend at the state penitentiary.”
“That may hopefully give you a graphic image to think about … And if you think I’m kidding, I’m not,” she reportedly said.
After the man indicated he understood, Amato continued: “The folks at the penitentiary have mothers and sisters and nieces and cousins that they do not want someone out there abusing. And they will take that out on you, at the penitentiary. So think about that because you’re racking up felonies at this point.”
A confidential complaint was filed in October with the commission, which is responsible for reviewing and acting on complaints of judicial misconduct, and Amato was served with a statement of allegations in December, the order says.
Amato acknowledged that her statements to the defendant violated the Code of Judicial Conduct but assured the commission that her comments, “while insensitive and thoughtless, were not motivated by bias or ill-will toward the defendant,” and instead were meant to impress on him that he needed to change his behavior, according to the order.
Amato and her attorney, Chuan-Yi Phillip Su, could not be reached this week for comment about the admonishment. The Seattle Times was unable to determine through court records which defendant Amato made her comments to or identify his attorney.
The commission found that Amato violated rules requiring judges to uphold the integrity of the judiciary by avoiding impropriety or the appearance of impropriety and to maintain appropriate courtroom decorum.
“The seriousness of the charges and their potential consequences could and should have been communicated by the judge without implying that a defendant may be raped in prison if he continued his unlawful behavior,” the order says. “The words and images chosen were improper, discourteous and unbecoming a judicial officer. They were degrading to the defendant and other incarcerated people, playing on stereotypes and exploiting fears of the criminal justice system.”
Amato’s statements were particularly inappropriate given they were made during an arraignment proceeding where the defendant is presumed innocent, according to the order.
Though Amato’s comments could have undermined the public’s confidence in her impartiality, the commission found it was an isolated event that was out of character and there was nothing to indicate the judge intentionally exploited her position or acted with ill intent. The order notes Amato had been a judicial officer for less than three years at the time of the arraignment and has had no other disciplinary history.
When contacted by the commission, Amato immediately acknowledged her comments were inappropriate, proactively sought counsel from more experienced judges and recognized her responsibility to remain vigilant about eliminating manifestations of bias, the order says. She also agreed to participate in a one-hour ethics training focused on appropriate courtroom decorum.
An admonishment is the least severe disciplinary action the commission can issue and is meant as a caution to a judge not to engage in certain proscribed behavior. A reprimand, considered an intermediate disciplinary action, requires a judge to appear before the commission and follow a specified corrective course of action for violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct.
A censure is the most serious disciplinary action for conduct that not only violates the code’s rules but also detrimentally affects the integrity of the judiciary and undermines public confidence in the administration of justice. A censure may also include a recommendation to the state Supreme Court that a judge be suspended or removed from the bench.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct was created in 1980 after voters passed an amendment to the state constitution to hold judges accountable for misconduct without compromising the judiciary’s independence. It is made up of 11 members — three judges, two attorneys and six citizens — and each member is appointed an alternate and serves a four-year term.