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‘Petty’ judge immune from lawsuit

– Although a rural Ohio county’s judge’s actions were “petty, unethical and unworthy of his office,” he is still immune from being sued by an attorney who got fired after the judge kicked him off all the cases in his courtroom, an appeals court panel found Tuesday.

The decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals stems from a 2012 lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bright against Judge David Dean Evans in Gallia County in southeastern Ohio’s Appalachian country, just across the West Virginia line.

Bright’s lawsuit accused Evans, the county, its board of commissioners and its public defender’s office of violating his rights to freedom of speech and due process.

The public defender’s office fired Bright in September 2011 after Evans removed him from all the 60-some cases pending in his courtroom because of a “conflict he created with the court.” The judge cited a lengthy motion in which Bright criticized some of Evans’ practices, such as setting strict deadlines for entering plea agreements.

The Ohio Supreme Court found “serious ethical questions” with Evans’ treatment of Bright and said that instead of removing the attorney from the cases, Evans should have recused himself. The court gave Evans a one-year suspension, stayed on condition he commit no misconduct.

In Tuesday’s decision, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit wrote that Evans overreacted and caused great hardship to Bright by wrongfully removing him from the cases.

“Judge Evans’s actions were petty, unethical, and unworthy of his office,” according to the ruling, written by Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore. “Judge Evans has brought dishonor on himself and his position.”

Even so, Moore wrote that the panel must protect judicial independence and immunity from liability.

“In our legal system, there is often someone who loses his money, his liberty, or his life. This cannot be helped,” she wrote. “But if that defeated party could turn around and file suit against the judge or judges in his case, then the whole system would unravel as the threat of suit crept into the judges’ minds.”

Bright’s attorney, civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein, said he would comment on the ruling after he reads it more thoroughly.