Michigan judge receives public admonishment for past courtroom behavior and actions ⋆

The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission has dismissed a formal investigation against a Berrien County judge, but instead released a public admonishment for his courtroom behavior toward both criminal defendants and their attorneys.

Judge Charles LaSata | Berrien County photo

According to a Dec. 12 letter from commission Chair Jon Hulsing, while investigators found “serious and ongoing problems with several aspects” of Berrien County Circuit Court Judge Charles LaSata’s judicial actions, a “complete turnaround” in his judicial persona occurred after those concerns were brought to his attention in September 2020, “after which you became a very different judge.”  

While Hulsing noted that LaSata claimed his demeanor issues were attributable to trauma he experienced from a 2016 shooting just outside his courtroom, he said the commission’s investigation indicated the issues in question preceded the shooting.

Regardless, he said that based on that change in LaSata’s judicial persona, they were dismissing the request for an investigation, although “with an admonition,” as provided for under Michigan Court Rules (MCR) 9.223(A)(4).

Among the “frequent complaints” about courtroom behavior that included unduly disparaging both criminal defendants and their attorneys so as to call his evenhandedness and impartiality into question was an instance in which LaSata allegedly told a defendant that they “could file a malpractice suit based on their attorney’s ‘poor lawyering,’” which Hulsing said was “a serious infringement on the attorney-client relationship.”

The letter also stated that LaSata “sometimes took actions against defendants that appear to have been motivated by anger,” including increasing a defendant’s bond after they moved to withdraw their guilty plea. Hulsing said that doing so without providing a justification created the appearance of impropriety as it suggested the defendant was being punished for deciding to exercise his due process rights and go to trial. 

Similarly, the investigation also determined that LaSata determined that defendants had the ability to pay costs, fines, and fees “with little support in the record” to justify it while also incarcerating them when those balances couldn’t be paid at sentencing, even though he failed to follow court rules that required him to determine if such fees could be paid “without manifest hardship” and whether the defendant had not made a good faith effort to pay.

However, Hulsing noted that that was a practice he “abandoned upon learning that we were investigating you and we applaud you for that.”

The commission also determined that LaSata, himself a former state lawmaker and the husband of ex-state Sen. Kim LaSata (R-St. Joseph), violated court rules in regards to campaign activities. 

Despite rules prohibiting judges from “publicly endorsing a candidate for non-judicial office,” evidence indicated that Charles LaSata posted a photo on his public Facebook page of he and his wife and others under a banner supporting his wife’s campaign, he also drove a car with a bumper sticker supporting his wife’s candidacy, and publicly displayed a campaign sign for his wife on election day “at least briefly.” 

State Sen. Kim LaSata (R-St. Joseph), April 20, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

“We recognize that the campaign was your wife’s and that the circumstances put you in an awkward position, but the canons contain no exception for spouse’s campaigns. We caution you to use care in the future regarding any campaign activities for non-judicial offices,” said Hulsing.

In concluding the letter, Hulsing said there was sufficient evidence that since being confronted with the violations in 2020, LaSata was sincere both in his dismay at his past actions and desire to be a model judge. 

“As we have noted repeatedly, your demeanor during the past three years is a marked improvement over your demeanor for the decade prior,” Hulsing said. “For these reasons, we are confident you will embrace what we have brought to your attention and continue [to] make the necessary changes.”

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authored by Jon King
First published at https%3A%2F%2Fmichiganadvance.com%2F2023%2F12%2F20%2Fmichigan-judge-receives-public-admonishment-for-past-courtroom-behavior-and-actions%2F

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