I don't see what can happen in NH, happening in CT
Judges should be held to a higher standard, not no standards or accountability. Judges should not be judging judges. [click here for video]- "In the Interest of Justice", A Documentary Primer
Committee To Recommend Suspension For N.H. Judge
Judge Says She Didn't Realize Actions Would Be Ethical ViolationsPOSTED: 11:50 am EST December 10, 2007 (WMUR website)
UPDATED: 6:55 pm EST December 10, 2007
CONCORD, N.H. -- A disciplinary committee voted Monday to recommend suspension for a judge who helped shield her lawyer-husband's assets as he was being disbarred.
Coffey is a judge in busy Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood. She has been on administrative leave since August.
In seeking leniency for Coffey over the trust, her lawyer, Russell Hilliard, presented supportive letters from judges, retired judges, court employees, prosecutors, defense lawyers and other associates. Committee lawyer Philip McLaughlin, a former state attorney general, said he had done his own inquiry and found public defenders and prosecutors alike who praised Coffey highly.
The Judicial Conduct Committee's recommendation regarding Superior Court Judge Patricia Coffey goes to the state Supreme Court, which will decide her punishment. It came in closed session after a public hearing at which the committee's lawyers recommended public censure, a lighter punishment. In the closed session, committee members voted to recommend a suspension of less than six months, according to a person familiar with the deliberations who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak for the committee.
Calls to Coffey's home and her lawyer's office were not immediately returned Monday afternoon. Jack Crisp, the chairman of the committee, declined to confirm or deny the recommendation pending approval of a draft, expected later this week.
"Until everybody signs off on that, there is no decision to report," he said.
At the hearing, Coffey struggled at times to remain composed. A former member of the committee, she said it did not occur to her when she and her husband created a family trust that changing ownership of real estate would be considered a violation of judicial ethics, but had since realized her error.
"Anyone who knows me and how I work knows that I have often said that one is a judge 24 hours a day, and I surely should have thought of that myself. I did not; I made a mistake in not considering the potential ramifications of setting up the trust," she said.
"It was never my intention to thwart a court order or impede the collection of any just debt."
The person familiar with the vote in closed session said committee members felt a public reprimand was not a strong enough punishment for Coffey, who admitted breaking two canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Some members also had concerns about some of Coffey's earlier statements about the matter, the source said. She spoke to an alternate panel of the committee because all of its regular members were disqualified from the case because of relationships with Coffey.
She appeared before the same panel last year after being accused of sleeping on the bench. In that case, Coffey agreed to an informal settlement that included random screening of the courtroom.
"They have very, very high regard for her," McLaughlin said.
"She seems to have it within herself emotionally to treat the lost of our people with dignity and respect and without a hint of patronization."
Both Hilliard and McLaughlin said Coffey's cooperation in the investigation and payment of the $75,000 influenced their decision to seek a public reprimand over the harsher possible penalties of suspension or dismissal from the bench. McLaughlin suggested the public humiliation Coffey has suffered would make her more sensitive to defendants and a better judge.
"The next time you have someone near and dear who's going to appear before a Superior Court judge, perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad idea to have it be before a judge who's had this particular experience," he said.
Coffey said she and her husband created the trust to shield their assets from potential lawsuits arising from his disbarment; John Coffey was disbarred for exploiting an elderly client suffering with dementia. John Coffey faced $75,000 in fees from the Professional Conduct Committee's investigation. The property was transferred on Dec. 1, 2003, four days before he was notified he had been found guilty of misconduct and would face discipline. He was disbarred in 2005.
Patricia Coffey told the panel she deliberately kept her distance from her husband's professional problems so they wouldn't affect her work as a judge. She said she spoke to him about it only twice, and he seemed "cautiously optimistic" about the outcome. She said around the time of her husband's disbarment proceedings, she was dealing with stressful family issues including a mother with Alzheimer's and a father who had suffered an emotional breakdown.
"When I participated in creating the trust. I was not thinking like a lawyer, and certainly not as a judge, but rather I acted as a distraught wife and a concerned mother," she said.
Coffey said she and her husband created the trust for estate planning purposes as well as to potentially shield their assets from creditors. Crisp asked Coffey why she and husband did not hire a lawyer to create the trust.
"I don't know. I can't answer that. My husband came home with a form-book trust, we talked about it and I signed it. I don't know why we didn't seek other counsel. We should have."
Crisp asked Coffey why money from the October 2005 sale of a condominium wasn't used to pay the Professional Conduct Committee. Coffey said it was used to pay for needed renovations to the family home in Rye. In June 2006, the Coffeys got $80,000 by refinancing from a $200,000 mortgage to a $280,000 mortgage. Crisp asked where that money went. Coffey said it paid for debts, including credit card debt.
"It wasn't as though we sat with 80,000 extra dollars that was able to be invested or (that we) had any other use for. It was a matter of living and paying off the debts as well," she said.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.