W.Va. Circuit Judge Yoder publicly admonished by ethics panel

September 15, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Yoder

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A state judicial ethics panel has found probable cause that 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge John C. Yoder committed misconduct when he allowed his law clerk to preside over two name-change hearings in Morgan County in May.

Members of the Judicial Investigation Commission, who are appointed by the state Supreme Court of Appeals, decided in their Aug. 26 meeting that Yoder should be publicly admonished after finding probable cause that he violated the Code of Judicial Conduct. However, the panel did not recommend that formal charges be filed against him.

Commission members Jefferson County Magistrate Gail C. Boober, attorney Alice Chakmakian and fellow 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Christopher C. Wilkes removed themselves from considering the complaint, which was filed May 19 by Morgan County Prosecuting Attorney Debra MH McLaughlin, according to a copy of the public admonishment Yoder released Thursday.

The commission found probable cause that Yoder committed misconduct by neglecting his duty on May 13 when he delegated his constitutional responsibility to hear and review cases to his law clerk, failed to adhere to responsibilities to maintain and enforce high standards of conduct and failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety, according to the admonishment.

In an interview, Yoder said Thursday that he accepted the judicial panel's admonishment and would not contest it whether he made a mistake or not.

"I feel I should have handled it differently, because any time the public misunderstands something that is going on it may create a perception that it's not been handled right," Yoder said.

"And so, I certainly would never handle it the same way again because I think people did not understand what was going on, and they were not aware to what extent I was involved in the process," he said.

Prior to the hearings, Yoder said he signed orders permitting the name changes for a 16-year-old boy and another man after reviewing petitions that he deemed to be in compliance with state law.

At the time of the hearings, Yoder, a member of the Legislative Committee of the West Virginia Judicial Association, was attending a legislative forum in Martinsburg.   

Yoder, who said his law clerk made no decisions regarding either petition, was directed to ask both petitioners to verify everything in the respective petitions was true and correct, questions that he would have asked.

Yoder also told his law clerk to contact him if any questions concerning the petitions were raised, or if anyone appeared in court to contest the name changes.

There were no objections, but the commission's admonishment of Yoder questions why the judge signed the name change for the teenage boy when he was not present for the hearing to verify that it was in the child's best interest.

Yoder told the commission in a four-page response to McLaughlin's complaint on June 14 that his law clerk texted him just before the hearing to tell him the boy was absent because he was hospitalized.

Yoder said Thursday that he already knew the child would not be attending the hearing, but still decided, "right or wrong," to sign the order for the boy's name to be changed.

The change was requested because the child's parents married after the child was born, according to Yoder. The other petition was filed to change the suffix of the man's name from "Jr" to "II."  

The commission said Yoder had the option to reschedule the hearing because of the scheduling conflict, but the judge said he was simply trying to accommodate the public and not delay the individuals' request.  

Yoder, who has filed pre-candidacy papers to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court of Appeals in 2012, declined to comment when asked if he felt the admonishment was politically motivated.

"I don't want to go down that road," Yoder said.

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