State high court removes county judge

Published 2:48 pm Wednesday, February 2, 2005

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
The Michigan Supreme Court voted 6-1 to remove St. Joseph County Circuit Judge James P. Noecker from the 45th Circuit bench in Centreville.
The Judicial Tenure Commission recommended Noecker be ousted from office and required to pay the costs of his prosecution.
The state high court's Feb. 1 filing on the appeal agreed that Noecker should be removed, but not that costs be assessed against him.
On March 12, 2003, Noecker was involved in a motor vehicle accident in Sturgis. The vehicle he was driving turned from a road into the parking lot of a store, Klinger Lake Trading Post.
According to witnesses, the vehicle neither accelerated or decelerated. Rather, it maintained a speed of approximately 3 to 5 mph and hit the corner of the store, causing significant damage to the building and to the inventory inside.
One of Noecker's more peculiar explanations for the cause of the accident was that he entered his vehicle through the passenger door and operated it while straddling the console because of mud on his shoes.
He indicated he used his left foot to accelerate and brake because his right foot remained straddled over the center console.
Noecker emerged from the vehicle, entered the store and asked if anyone had been injured. The proprietor, Janice Pankey, was upset and repeatedly stated she wanted someone to find her husband, who was ice fishing on a local lake. Noecker left the scene, later claiming he did so to help Mrs. Pankey, though he lacked any information to assist in the search beyond the name of the lake.
Mrs. Pankey testified that the judge did not know what her husband looked like, what vehicle he was driving or even the color of the coat he wore.
When Noecker arrived home he learned the state police were enroute to his house to speak with him about the accident. He testified he poured and drank three to five ounces of vodka. He stated the effect his consumption of alcohol would have on troopers' investigation of his car accident did not trouble him at the time. A breath test administered about two hours after the accident read 0.1.
Craig Wheeler, a state trooper who investigated the accident scene, testified to his concern that alcohol may have been a factor. Sgt. Steven Barker testified there are generally three reasons people leave an accident scene: their license is suspended, an outstanding arrest warrant for them or they drank alcohol before driving.
Retired Berrien County Circuit Judge John N. Fields was appointed master in the case, heard evidence and made 40 specific findings of fact. After reviewing all the evidence, Fields found Noecker violated court rules. The Judicial Tenure Commission adopted Fields' report and unanimously recommended that the Supreme Court remove Noecker from the bench.
In addition, in a split decision, the Judicial Tenure Commission recommended Noecker be required to pay costs it incurred in prosecuting the matter.
Three Judicial Tenure Commission members concurred. They thought Noecker should also be required to pay costs incurred for visiting judges to hear his docket during his interim suspension.
Noecker asked the high court to reject the Judicial Tenure Commission's recommendation. He asserted there was insufficient evidence to find him guilty of judicial misconduct. He also argued that the master erred in allowing introduction of improper expert evidence.
Finally, Noecker contested the recommendation that he be required to pay costs of his prosecution.
The Judicial Tenure Commission considered the fact Noecker had extensive prior involvement with the judicial disciplinary system, having been admonished on various occasions for failing to timely complete court work.
The Judicial Tenure Commission concluded that Noecker's failure to be truthful regarding the automobile accident and its aftermath justified his removal from office. It found Noecker misled police and later provided inconsistent accounts of events. Also, it found he failed to offer credible testimony under oath. Furthermore, the Judicial Tenure Commission indicated docket delays caused by Noecker had a deleterious effect on administration of justice in St. Joseph County.
The Judicial Tenure Commission acknowledged that a number of attorneys testified in Noecker's favor. But it noted that their testimony did not alter the fact that the court docket and the public suffered because of his conduct.
Noecker left the scene of an automobile accident. Eyewitnesses testified that he appeared intoxicated at the time of the accident. As a former prosecutor and a judge, he knew he should have stayed at the scene. The court concluded he was under the influence of alcohol when he ran his car into the store and that he attempted to deceive police about this fact because he was motivated by a desire to avoid criminal prosecution.
Nothing in the record suggests Judge Fields erred in his findings. To the contrary, the justices believe Fields fairly and objectively presided.
The nature of the judge's "lies, and the apparent motives behind them, have seriously harmed the integrity of the judiciary … respondent's deception surrounding the March 12 accident … warrants the harsh sanction of removal from office."
While concurring with the majority opinion, Justice Stephen J. Markman said, "I agree with the dissenting opinion that more egregious behavior on the part of judges has, in the past, been met with less sanction than permanent removal. Further, I believe that the 35 years of honorable public service on the respondent's part deserve more consideration in the formulation of a sanction than, to my eye, has been given here."
Justice Michael F. Cavanagh, in his dissent, wrote, "I cannot conclude that respondent's removal is warranted."
Cavanagh did not think the Judicial Tenure Commission adequately supported a finding that Noecker's admitted alcoholism caused his perceived administrative failures … no one has ever seen respondent drinking or drunk on the job, including his long-time clerk. No attorney testified negatively about respondent's behavior in court, and some offered reasons for case delays that were totally unrelated" to Noecker.