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Allen County Superior Court Judge Kenneth R. Scheibenberger takes the oath of office after being re-elected in 2004.

Judging the judges

Felts

Two Allen County judges familiar with passing judgment on people who have committed wrongdoings now find themselves on the other side of the bench.

The court officials who judge them will face the same challenges Circuit Court Judge Thomas Felts and Superior Court Judge Kenneth Scheibenberger face regularly: achieving justice by applying the rule of law to the actions of the defendants while weighing past behavior, remorse, the need to set examples for others and balancing punishment with reformation.

Felts and Scheibenberger are facing unrelated accusations within days of each other. The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications charged Scheibenberger last week with violating judicial conduct rules for, according to court records, entering the courtroom of another judge while wearing his robe and verbally berating a defendant and members of his family. Three days later, Felts was arrested in downtown Indianapolis on charges of driving while intoxicated and public intoxication.

Felts, now wrapping up his first six-year term as a Circuit Court judge, is well liked and respected as a judge and was selected early this year as president of the Indiana Judges Association. His first-time arrest in the wee hours of the morning came as a shock to friends, colleagues and the legal community.

First, Felts will face the Marion County judicial system. Later, he will most likely face some type of disciplinary action from the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications and the Indiana Supreme Court.

If their decision is based solely on the arrest and Felts’ record and reputation, he may well receive no more than an admonishment and possibly be referred to the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program.

Whether Felts’ court should continue to oversee alcohol- and traffic-related cases is worthy of review. In many other counties, the circuit judge handles a variety of the most serious criminal cases as well as divorces.

Years ago, based on the strengths and preferences of Felts’ predecessor, Thomas Ryan, Allen County judges limited criminal cases in Circuit Court to those involving habitual traffic offenders or alcohol. In any event, the way cases are split between superior and circuit courts is overdue for reconsideration.

By all appearances, Felts displayed a lapse in judgment, but his long record of community service, dedication to justice and sincere remorse must also be heavily considered.

In Scheibenberger’s case, the outrage behind his outburst is understandable to any parent who has suffered a loss. The judge said the defendant in the courtroom he entered had sold drugs to Scheibenberger’s son, Sam, who died last year.

Scheibenberger has a reputation for being outspoken. Yet the public does have reason to expect judges to be held to a higher standard, particularly in the courtroom. “An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society,” reads a judicial canon that Scheibenberger is accused of violating. “A judge should participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe those standards in order to preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary.”

Of more concern, this is not the first time the judge has been disciplined. In December 2002, the Commission on Judicial Qualifications admonished him for making a docket entry in a case involving his son.

In 2003, Scheibenberger’s Superior Court colleagues strongly urged him to receive inpatient treatment for alcohol abuse after an incident at a local tavern.

Scheibenberger now faces a hearing before three judges appointed by the state Supreme Court, and that court will have the final say in determining any disciplinary action.

Indiana court officials, particularly Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, are commended for establishing an atmosphere where judges accused of wrongdoing face public discipline. In a previous era, the actions attributed to Scheibenberger and Felts would have been ignored.

Now, Felts and Scheibenberger are at the mercy of the same system they help administer. Like many cases they themselves have seen, determining proper punishment will be a difficult decision involving several factors, and the final results will doubtlessly be both praised and attacked.

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