In re Theresa Brennan, Judge (Opinion - Leave Granted)

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The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission filed a formal complaint against 53rd District Court Judge Theresa Brennan alleging 17 counts of judicial misconduct related to both her professional conduct and to her conduct during her divorce proceedings. After a hearing, the master concluded by a preponderance of the evidence that respondent had committed misconduct in office with respect to all but one count of the second amended complaint. In particular, the master found that respondent had: (1) failed to disclose when she presided over Michigan v. Kowalski (No. 08-17643-FC) that she was involved in a romantic relationship with the principal witness, and did not disqualify herself from the case on that basis; (2) failed to immediately disqualify herself from hearing her own divorce case and destroyed evidence even though she knew that her then-estranged husband had filed an ex parte motion to preserve evidence; (3) failed to disclose her relationship with attorney Shari Pollesch or to disqualify herself from hearing cases in which Pollesch or her firm served as counsel for a party; (4) made false statements under oath when deposed in her divorce case; (5) made false statements during certain cases over which she presided regarding her relationships with Furlong and Pollesch; (6) made false statements under oath to the commission; (7) verbally abused attorneys, litigants, witnesses, and employees; (8) directed employees to perform personal tasks for her during work hours; (9) directed employees to perform work for her judicial campaign during work hours; and (10) interrupted two depositions she attended during her divorce case. The Michigan Supreme Court found the commission’s findings of fact were supported by the record, and its conclusions of law and analysis of the appropriate sanctions was correct. Respondent was ordered removed from her current office and suspended from holding judicial office for six years; the commission was ordered to submit an itemized bill of costs, fees, and expenses incurred in prosecuting the complaint.

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Michigan Supreme Court Lansing, Michigan Syllabus Chief Justice: Bridget M. McCormack Chief Justice Pro Tem: David F. Viviano This syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. Justices: Stephen J. Markman Brian K. Zahra Richard H. Bernstein Elizabeth T. Clement Megan K. Cavanagh Reporter of Decisions: Kathryn L. Loomis In re BRENNAN Docket No. 157930. Argued June 19, 2019 (Calendar No. 1). Decided June 28, 2019. The Judicial Tenure Commission filed a formal complaint against 53rd District Court Judge Theresa M. Brennan alleging 17 counts of judicial misconduct related to both her professional conduct and to her conduct during her divorce proceedings. The Supreme Court appointed retired Wayne Circuit Court Judge William J. Giovan to act as master to hear the complaint. With the permission of the commission, its deputy executive director petitioned for the interim suspension of respondent. The Supreme Court denied the petition without prejudice to the commission filing such a petition. 503 Mich 943 (2019). The commission thereafter petitioned for the interim suspension of respondent without pay. The Supreme Court granted the petition for interim suspension but with pay. 503 Mich 952 (2019). After a hearing, the master concluded by a preponderance of the evidence that respondent had committed misconduct in office with respect to all but one count of the second amended complaint. In particular, the master found that respondent had (1) failed to disclose when she presided over People v Kowalski (Livingston Circuit Court Case No. 08-17643-FC) that she was involved in a romantic relationship with the principal witness, Detective Sean Furlong, and did not disqualify herself from the case on that basis; (2) failed to immediately disqualify herself from hearing her own divorce case and destroyed evidence even though she knew that her then-estranged husband had filed an ex parte motion to preserve evidence; (3) failed to disclose her relationship with attorney Shari Pollesch or to disqualify herself from hearing cases in which Pollesch or her firm served as counsel for a party; (4) made false statements under oath when deposed in her divorce case; (5) made false statements during certain cases over which she presided regarding her relationships with Furlong and Pollesch; (6) made false statements under oath to the commission; (7) verbally abused attorneys, litigants, witnesses, and employees; (8) directed employees to perform personal tasks for her during work hours; (9) directed employees to perform work for her judicial campaign during work hours; and (10) interrupted two depositions she attended during her divorce case. The commission reviewed the hearing transcript, the exhibits, and the master’s report and concluded that the examiner had established by a preponderance of the evidence that respondent had engaged in judicial misconduct and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, including failing to disclose relevant facts regarding her relationship with the lead detective in a criminal case over which she presided, failing to disclose her relationship with an attorney representing a litigant in a case over which she presided, failing to immediately recuse herself from hearing her own divorce case, tampering with evidence in her own divorce case, and lying under oath. The commission recommended that respondent be removed from judicial office and that she be ordered to pay costs, fees, and expenses under MCR 9.205(B) because of her intentional misrepresentations and misleading statements to the commission. Respondent petitioned the Supreme Court, requesting that the Court reject the commission’s recommendation. In a unanimous memorandum opinion, the Supreme Court held: The commission’s findings of fact were supported by the record, and its conclusions of law and analysis, under In re Brown, 461 Mich 1291 (1999), of the appropriate sanctions were correct. The cumulative effect of respondent’s misconduct required her removal from office and imposition of a conditional six-year suspension. The more serious sanction was warranted because six of the seven Brown factors weighed in favor of a more serious sanction; the most severe sanction was particularly warranted because respondent made false statements under oath, tampered with evidence in her divorce proceeding, and failed to disclose the extent of her relationship with Furlong during the Kowalski trial. Defendant’s argument that the participating members of the commission should have disqualified themselves was without merit. Respondent was ordered to pay costs, fees, and expenses under MCR 9.205(B) in light of the intentional misrepresentations and misleading statements she made in her written responses to the commission and during her testimony at the public hearing. Respondent ordered removed from her current office and suspended from holding judicial office for six years; commission ordered to submit an itemized bill of costs, fees, and expenses incurred in prosecuting the complaint. Justice CLEMENT, joined by Justice CAVANAGH, concurring, agreed with the majority’s factual findings, conclusion of misconduct, and decision to remove respondent from office, but wrote separately to express her concern regarding the Court’s authority under Const 1963, art 6, § 30(2) to impose both a removal and a conditional suspension on respondent. Although the Court was bound on this issue by In re McCree, 495 Mich 51 (2014), which held that the Supreme Court had authority to impose both a removal and a conditional suspension on a respondent judge, McCree relied on distinguishable caselaw and contained troubling constitutional analysis. Justice CLEMENT joined the majority opinion in full because respondent did not seek to overrule In re McCree and did not provide a basis for distinguishing the case. ©2019 State of Michigan Michigan Supreme Court Lansing, Michigan OPINION Chief Justice: Justices: Bridget M. McCormack Chief Justice Pro Tem: David F. Viviano Stephen J. Markman Brian K. Zahra Richard H. Bernstein Elizabeth T. Clement Megan K. Cavanagh FILED June 28, 2019 STATE OF MICHIGAN SUPREME COURT In re THERESA M. BRENNAN, Judge 53rd District Court No. 157930 BEFORE THE JUDICIAL TENURE COMMISSION BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH MEMORANDUM OPINION. On June 19, 2019, the Court heard oral argument concerning the findings and recommendation of the Judicial Tenure Commission in this matter. The commission’s Decision and Recommendation for Discipline is attached as an exhibit to this opinion. This Court has conducted a de novo review of the commission’s findings of fact, conclusions of law, and recommendations for discipline.1 Having done so, we adopt in part the recommendations made by the commission. Effective immediately, we order that respondent, 53rd District Court Judge Theresa M. Brennan, be removed from office. In 1 See In re Morrow, 496 Mich 291, 298; 854 NW2d 89 (2014). addition, we impose a six-year conditional suspension without pay effective on the date of this decision. Should respondent be elected or appointed to judicial office during that time, respondent “will nevertheless be debarred from exercising the power and prerogatives of the office until at least the expiration of the suspension.”2 Our order of discipline is based on the following misconduct alleged in the second amended complaint: (1) Respondent failed to disclose the extent of her relationship with Detective Sean Furlong, a witness in People v Kowalski, Case No. 08-17643-FC, to the parties in that case (Counts I and V); (2) Respondent failed to disclose the extent of her relationship with attorney Shari Pollesch and Pollesch’s law firm in several cases over which respondent presided (Count II); (3) Respondent failed to immediately disqualify herself from her own divorce proceeding and destroyed evidence in that divorce proceeding even though she knew that her then-estranged husband had filed an ex parte motion for a mutual restraining order regarding the duty to preserve evidence (Counts IV and XVI); (4) Respondent made false statements (a) during court proceedings over which she presided, (b) to the commission while under oath during these proceedings, and (c) while testifying at her deposition under oath in her divorce proceeding (Counts XIII, XIV, and XVII); (5) Respondent was persistently impatient, undignified, and discourteous to those appearing before her (Counts IX, X, and XV); 2 In re Probert, 411 Mich 210, 237; 308 NW2d 773 (1981). 2 (6) Respondent required her staff members to perform personal tasks during work hours (Count XI); (7) Respondent allowed her staff to work on her 2014 judicial campaign during work hours (Count XII); and (8) Respondent improperly interrupted two depositions that she attended during her divorce proceeding (Count VII). “The purpose of the judicial disciplinary process is to protect the people from corruption and abuse on the part of those who wield judicial power.”3 When evaluating a recommendation for discipline made by the commission, “[t]his Court gives considerable deference to the [commission’s] recommendations for sanctions, but our deference is not a matter of blind faith.”4 “Instead, it is a function of the [commission] adequately articulating the bases for its findings and demonstrating that there is a reasonable relationship between such findings and the recommended discipline.”5 “This Court’s overriding duty in the area of judicial discipline proceedings is to treat equivalent cases in an equivalent manner and . . . unequivalent cases in a proportionate manner.”6 “In determining appropriate 3 In re McCree, 495 Mich 51, 74; 845 NW2d 458 (2014) (quotation marks and citation omitted). 4 In re Simpson, 500 Mich 533, 558; 902 NW2d 383 (2017) (quotation marks, citation, and brackets omitted). 5 Id. (quotation marks and citations omitted). 6 In re Morrow, 496 Mich 291, 302; 854 NW2d 89 (2014) (quotation marks and citation omitted). 3 sanctions, we seek to restore and maintain the dignity and impartiality of the judiciary and to protect the public.”7 In this case, we adopt the commission’s findings of fact because our review of the record reveals that they are amply supported. In addition, we agree with the commission’s conclusions of law and analysis of the appropriate sanction. Regarding the commission’s conclusions of law, we agree that respondent violated Canons 1, 2(A), 2(B), and 7(B)(1)(b) of the Code of Judicial Conduct; committed misconduct under MCR 9.104(1) to (4)8; engaged in “misconduct in office” and “conduct clearly prejudicial to the administration of justice” under Const 1963, art 6, § 30(2) and MCR 9.205(B); and violated the standards or rules of professional conduct adopted by the Supreme Court, contrary to MCR 9.104(4). Regarding the commission’s disciplinary analysis, we agree with the commission that six of the seven factors articulated in In re Brown9 weigh in favor of a more serious sanction, and we conclude that the sanction we have imposed in this case is proportional to sanctions imposed in other judicial-misconduct cases.10 We are particularly persuaded that these most severe sanctions are necessary because of respondent’s misconduct in making false statements under oath, in tampering with evidence in her divorce proceedings, and in 7 McCree, 495 Mich at 74 (quotation marks and citation omitted). 8 Respondent has not argued that MCR 9.104, which governs professional disciplinary proceedings before the Attorney Disciplinary Board, is not applicable in this context. Therefore, we need not decide this question. See Simpson, 500 Mich at 555 n 26. 9 In re Brown, 461 Mich 1291, 1292-1293; 625 NW2d 744 (1999). 10 We note that we are imposing a six-year conditional suspension effective on the date of this opinion, instead of having the removal extend through the next judicial term as requested by the commission. 4 failing to disclose the extent of her relationship with Detective Furlong in People v Kowalski.11 We have considered respondent’s argument that the participating members of the commission should have disqualified themselves. We find respondent’s argument to be without merit. On the basis of the intentional misrepresentations and misleading statements in respondent’s written responses to the commission and during her testimony at the public hearing, we find respondent liable under MCR 9.205(B), in an amount subject to review by this Court, for the costs, fees, and expenses incurred by the commission in prosecuting the complaint. We order the commission to submit an itemized bill of costs. The cumulative effect of respondent’s misconduct convinces this Court that respondent should not remain in judicial office. Therefore, we remove respondent from office and conditionally suspend her without pay for a period of six years, with the suspension becoming effective only if respondent regains judicial office during that 11 We are not often confronted with the multifarious acts of misconduct that are present in this case. The individual findings of misconduct range from those warranting the most severe sanction of removal (such as lying under oath) to those that are still unacceptable, but might warrant a lesser sanction (such as respondent’s improper demeanor on the bench). But we are not called upon to assess an appropriate sanction for each discrete finding of misconduct. Instead, we must determine the appropriate sanction for all of respondent’s misconduct taken as a whole. We note, however, that “[t]his Court has consistently imposed the most severe sanction by removing judges for testifying falsely under oath.” In re Adams, 494 Mich 162, 186; 833 NW2d 897 (2013) (citing multiple cases). And we have previously found a conditional suspension appropriate when a judge “has not yet learned from his mistakes and that the likelihood of his continuing to commit judicial misconduct is high.” McCree, 495 Mich at 86. 5 period.12 Pursuant to MCR 7.315(C)(3), the Clerk of the Court is directed to issue the order removing and suspending respondent from office forthwith. Bridget M. McCormack Stephen J. Markman Brian K. Zahra David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Elizabeth T. Clement Megan K. Cavanagh 12 The concurrence questions this Court’s power to suspend a judge beyond her current term of office. Because no party has raised those issues here, we decline to address those issues in this case. 6 EXHIBIT STATE OF MICHIGAN SUPREME COURT In re THERESA M. BRENNAN, Judge 53rd District Court No. 157930 BEFORE THE JUDICIAL TENURE COMMISSION CLEMENT, J. (concurring). I agree with the majority’s factual findings, conclusion of misconduct, and decision to remove respondent, Theresa M. Brennan, from office. I write separately to express my concerns regarding this Court’s authority to also impose a conditional suspension upon respondent. Under Const 1963, art 6, § 30(2), this Court may “censure, suspend with or without salary, retire or remove a judge” for misconduct in office. These potential sanctions escalate in severity, leading to the ultimate sanction wherein the respondent is completely divorced from judicial office: removal. Given the arrangement of § 30(2) as an escalating list of sanction options, I question whether § 30(2) was intended to grant this Court the power to impose both a removal and a conditional suspension upon a respondent. See In re McCree, 495 Mich 51, 88-89; 845 NW2d 458 (2014) (CAVANAGH, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).1 1 To the extent that the additional imposition of suspension on a removed judge is designed to impose continuing consequences on that respondent, I submit that the Attorney Grievance Commission holds authority and discretion to impose such consequences by determining whether discipline such as the suspension or revocation of a respondent’s law license is warranted. That being said, I concede that this challenge appears to be foreclosed by this Court’s decision in In re McCree. There, this Court removed the respondent from his thencurrent office and imposed a conditional suspension. Id. at 56 (opinion of the Court). It also expressly rejected the respondent’s argument that this Court lacked the constitutional authority to impose such a sanction. Id. at 82-86. In reaching this conclusion, this Court relied on its earlier decision in In re Probert, 411 Mich 210, 224; 308 NW2d 773 (1981), wherein this Court held that it was empowered to impose a conditional suspension upon a nonincumbent respondent because “it is immaterial to a [conditional] suspension . . . whether or not the disciplined party holds judicial office when the suspension is imposed.” In re Probert did not identify the source of its authority to impose a conditional suspension; it merely stated that “we have on at least three occasions issued conditional suspensions . . . .” Id. at 223-224. Those other occasions include In re Bennett, 403 Mich 178, 200; 267 NW2d 914 (1978); In re Del Rio, 400 Mich 665, 672; 256 NW2d 727 (1977); and In re Mikesell, 396 Mich 517, 549; 243 NW2d 86 (1976), wherein this Court imposed suspensions on the respondent judges and indicated that the suspensions would apply regardless of the respondents’ election or appointment to other judicial offices. In each of these cases, the suspensions occurred during the respondent’s current term of office and precluded judicial service if the respondent obtained another judicial seat during the term of the suspension. As stated, although those cases all involved active judges, this Court found that the fact that the respondent in In re Probert had already left office was “immaterial” to its authority to impose a conditional suspension without further discussion of its constitutional authority to do so. In re Probert, 411 Mich at 224. In In re McCree, 495 Mich at 56, this Court again expanded its suspension power by applying it to an active 2 judge (unlike in In re Probert), whom the Court also removed (unlike in In re Bennett, In re Del Rio, In re Mikesell, and In re Probert). While I concede that this Court is bound by In re McCree’s determination that this Court has the authority to impose both a removal and a conditional suspension on a respondent judge, I am troubled by the constitutional analysis applied in McCree and its reliance on distinguishable caselaw to arrive at that determination. Given that respondent does not seek to have McCree overruled or provide any basis to distinguish McCree, I concur in the result of the majority’s decision. Elizabeth T. Clement Megan K. Cavanagh 3