Judge sullies people’s courthouse

If the Office of Disciplinary Counsel’s sternly worded post-hearing brief in the ethics case against a Randolph County judge is any indication of what the Supreme Court’s final decision will be, stability and faith in the local judiciary soon may be restored.

Both sides filed documents this week, eight days after 20th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong appeared before a nine-member Judicial Hearing Board over an extramarital affair involving then-Community Corrections Executive Director Travis Carter.

According to the filings, three days prior to that hearing, Wilfong admitted her conduct violated two Judicial Canons, and that the integrity of the judicial system was harmed by her actions.

This admission is too little, too late, though, in that the damage already has been done.

Despite Wilfong’s continued insistence that this is a personal matter, the fact remains the situation goes far beyond that of two consenting adults.

Indeed, an affair by itself is a personal matter. What one chooses to do behind closed doors is, and should be private. When it involves two people, though, one of whom has an extreme amount of professional influence over the other, the matter crosses a very clear moral and ethical line. Moreover, when a decision by either of the parties involved can affect a person’s future or freedom, utmost care must be taken to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

None of that seems to even have been considered, as the affair lingered for approximately two years.

Special Judicial Disciplinary Counsel David A. Jividen and Rachael L. Fletcher Cipoletti of the Office of Disciplinary Counsel point out in their filing that, “Judge Wilfong utilized her position of power and influence to gain resources for Carter by lobbying the president of the Randolph County Commission.”

In addition, Wilfong failed to disqualify herself in cases that involved Carter and his staff, she involved other members of the bar to further the relationship and frequently summoned Carter to the courthouse, thereby taking time away from his county- and taypayer-funded duties.

Perhaps the most egregious and covert aspect of the affair was where parts of it took place. The ODC filing says Wilfong, “utilized her judicial chamber in the people’s court house (sic) to perform sexual acts upon Carter. …” That simply sullies and belittles the very institution Wilfong swore to uphold, and is a blatant slap in the face to each member of the local judicial system and the community as a whole.

In simple terms, morals aside, the financial and ethical costs of this “personal matter” are far too high and far-reaching to calculate.

In its conclusion, the ODC argued, “Judge Wilfong’s misconduct calls into question her judgment and brings the Randolph County system of justice into disrepute. Public confidence in the judiciary is a fragile thing – Judge Wilfong should be suspended from office ‘not to punish the judge for (her) extensive wrongdoing, but to relieve from the bench a person whose further service will be detrimental to the judicial branch of government.'”

The Special Disciplinary Counsel recommends that Judge Wilfong be suspended without pay for a period of 4 years; be censured on each of the 25 violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct; and should pay the costs associated with the investigation and prosecution of the proceedings against her.

If these recommendations are accepted, Judge Wilfong would be, in essence, removed from the bench for the remainder of her term, which expires in 2016.

This has been a painful – and expensive – incident for the residents of Randolph County. Since Judge Wilfong has not stepped down from her post voluntarily, we urge the Judicial Hearing Board, then the Supreme Court to help put this dark and shameful episode to rest by following through and approving the recommendations made by the ODC. The healing process cannot start and faith will not be restored in the local judicial system until decisive actions are taken and a new face sits behind the bench in the hallowed – albeit now tarnished – Randolph County Courthouse.