The Ex Parte Minefield

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The Ex Parte Minefield

A judge should accord to every person who is legally interested in a proceeding, or the person’s lawyer, full right to be heard according to law, and, except as authorized by law, neither knowingly initiate nor knowingly consider ex parte or other communications concerning a pending proceeding. A judge, however, may obtain the advice of a disinterested expert on the law applicable to a proceeding before the judge.

Canon 3 (A) (4)

North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct

1. Reported Supreme Court decisions involving ex parte communications/orders
In re Brown, 356 NC 278 (2002)

In re Kivett, 309 NC 635 (1983)
2. Fact situations for discussion

  1. A probation officer approaches Judge Jim Beam in a courthouse hallway. The officer requests Judge Beam to sign a modification of a probation judgment the judge issued several months before. The modification would extend the time for the probationer to pay fines and costs and reduce the monthly payment amount. The probation officer says that the probationer has been unemployed for several months and has fallen behind in his payments. He has just become employed. The officer says that the monthly payment amounts in the original judgment are too high for the probationer to pay. Judge Beam signs the probation modification order with no prior notice to the District Attorney.

  1. A probation officer approaches Judge Beam in his chambers during a recess. The officer requests Judge Beam to sign a modification of a probation judgment that Judge Beam entered eight months before in a driving while impaired case. The modification requires that the probationer serve 10 weekends in jail as a special condition of probation. The probation officer says that the probationer has been convicted of a second offense of driving while impaired which would constitute a violation of the probation judgment. The officer says that she and the probationer have agreed to the modification in lieu of filing a probation violation report. Judge Beam signs the modification order with no prior notice to the District Attorney.

  1. Judge Beam is trying a criminal case. A search and seizure issue is present in the case. Judge Beam has conducted a hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence and has taken the matter under advisement during the lunch recess. Judge Beam calls Bob Farb at the UNC School of Government during lunch to discuss the search and seizure issue and to receive Professor Farb’s input. When court reconvenes, Judge Beam denies the defendant’s motion. Judge Beam does not mention his discussion with Bob Farb.

  1. Judge Beam is trying a civil case. An evidentiary issue arises during the morning. During the lunch recess, Judge Beam discusses the evidentiary issue and his ruling with two other Superior Court judges while the judges are eating lunch together. After court reconvenes, Judge Beam reverses his earlier ruling. He informs plaintiff and defense counsel that he reconsidered his ruling after discussing the matter with other judges during lunch.

  1. Judge Beam tries a DWI case. The jury convicts the defendant, and Judge Beam enters a judgment. The defendant’s attorney says nothing about a limited driving privilege. Two days later, the defense attorney comes to Judge Beam’s chambers with a limited driving privilege and the supporting documents required for issuance of a privilege. The defense counsel requests Judge Beam to sign the privilege. Judge Beam signs the privilege and hands it to the defense attorney to file with the Clerk of Superior Court. The privilege was signed with no prior notice to the District Attorney.

  1. Bud Wiser is a driver involved in a two-car collision that results in the death of the other driver. A police officer at the accident scene notices that Wiser has the odor of alcohol on his breath, has bloodshot eyes and slurred speech, and is unsteady on his feet. Wiser tells the officer that he suffered a blackout immediately before the accident. Wiser is transported by ambulance to Blackstone General Hospital where he is treated in the emergency room. The treating doctor orders that a blood sample be drawn for testing. One month later, Wiser is charged with second-degree murder after the police have completed their accident investigation. Wiser retains an attorney to represent him on the charge. The District Attorney brings an order to Judge Beam in his chambers. The order directs Blackstone General Hospital to release to the District Attorney copies of all medical records relating to Wiser’s treatment following the accident, including the results of the blood testing. Judge Beam signs the order with no prior notice to the defendant’s attorney.

  1. During a session of Superior Court, defendant John Dillinger fails to appear for trial. Judge Beam has the defendant called out and issues an order for arrest and an order of forfeiture. The next week, the assistant public defender representing Dillinger comes to Judge Beam and tells the judge that the defendant had not received notice of his trial because a secretary in the public defender office failed to mail a letter notifying the defendant of the trial setting. The assistant public defender asks Judge Beam to sign an order striking the order for arrest and the order of forfeiture. Judge Bean signs the order with no prior notice to the District Attorney.

  1. Judge Beam presides at the trial of an 18-year-old charged with involuntary manslaughter. The youth was involved in a two-car collision in which a passenger was fatally injured. During an evening recess, Judge Beam is having dinner with his wife at a restaurant. Judge Beam’s wife tells him that the defendant is a former student she taught in junior high school, that he is a good kid who comes from a good family, and that he has never been in any kind of trouble. She tells Judge Beam that the teen’s father died of cancer two years earlier and that the teen has been working at a part-time job to earn money to support his mother and siblings. Judge Beam responds, “It sounds like he’s not a bad kid.” Mrs. Beam says, “I’m sure that John didn’t mean to hurt anyone. Accidents do happen. Look how many accidents our own children had when they were growing up! You ought to go easy on that young man if he is convicted.” Judge Beam replies, “I’ll try to enter a fair sentence, honey. Now let’s talk about something else.”

  1. Judge Beam is having lunch with a fellow Superior Court judge. The other judge tells Beam about a criminal case he has been trying in which a high school senior committed an assault on another student. The jury has convicted the teen, and the judge is going to sentence him when court reconvenes after lunch. Judge Beam tells his colleague, “I coached that young man in Little League baseball for several seasons. He is a swell young man and comes from a good family. He’s one of the best young ballplayers I ever coached. And I hear that he may be in line to get a baseball scholarship in college. I’d sure hate to see that young fella miss the chance to get a free college education. Go as easy on him as you can.”

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