The West Virginia judge who ordered the warrantless searches has resigned

The rumors are true! Judges who misbehave occasionally face consequences for their actions. Well, they are anyway if their behavior is extremely outrageous and widely publicized.

And so West Virginia’s Louise E. Goldston stepped down from the bench after being publicly called out, fined and threatened with impeachment for acting more like a Bronze Age chieftain than you’d expect from a member of the US judiciary. It’s a good start for imposing some behavioral boundaries.

“On Tuesday, West Virginia Family Court Judge Louise Goldston stepped down from her position amid a legislative effort to impeach her for violating the rights of West Virginia residents,” the Institute for Justice reported last week. “The Goldston impeachment resolution specifically mentions the judge conducting the warrantless search of Institute for Justice (IJ) client Matt Gibson’s home. Despite her retirement, Matt and IJ will continue to move forward with their lawsuit against Goldston.”

In March 2020, Goldston led an impromptu trip to Gibson’s home to settle a post-divorce dispute between Gibson and his ex-wife, who claimed Gibson still owned some of her property. There, Goldston ordered a warrantless search of the home, refused Gibson’s request to stand down and ordered him to stand by while officers canvassed the scene. While Gibson was prohibited from recording the proceedings, he secretly recorded some audio, a neighbor made a video from outside, and a bailiff at the scene also made an audio recording.

The details of the case were reported in 2020 by Chris Dickerson from West Virginia record, which documents legal matters. Goldston faced disciplinary proceedings on charges related to compliance with the law, trust in the judiciary, avoiding abuse of prestige, impartiality and integrity, outside influences, competence, diligence and cooperation, and extrajudicial activities in general.

“Goldston admitted that she did not inform Gibson of the purpose of the home visit and did not give him an opportunity to object,” Dickerson added. “She also said she thought it was proper to visit parties’ homes. In fact, she said she had done so 11 times on different occasions over the years.”

She was not alone. Last summer, during the denial of Goldston’s judicial immunity claim (a rare event indeed; you’re welcome), Bailiff Jeff McPeake and Deputy Bobby Stump, who are also being sued, testified that these formalized home invasions are quite common in local courts.

“The record raises a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Raleigh County Commission had the requisite municipal policy of allowing police officers to participate in house searches with family court judges of the type at issue here,” U.S. District Judge Frank Volk wrote.

This was a year after West Virginia courts had already censured Goldston, as civil rights attorney John W. Bryan, who represented Gibson, noted at the time.

There was no end to Goldston’s consequences either. The judge’s sly courtroom shenanigans attracted the attention of the press and then the West Virginia Legislature. In January, lawmakers began impeachment proceedings against Goldston (a three-time president of the West Virginia Family Court Judges Association who, by the way, had the worst performance on the bench since 1994) “for violating the constitutional civil rights of the citizens of West Virginia, violating the constitutional separation of powers, incompetence, neglect of duty , and some serious crimes and misdemeanors.”

The resolution was sponsored by 11 members of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Wisely, Goldston decided this was an opportune moment to find a non-judicial pursuit to devote her energies to.

Maybe he will bring some friends with him.

“As of today, I just discovered this breaking news: two more family court judges in West Virginia have also been indicted for their roles in conspiring to help Judge Goldston avoid disciplinary action,” attorney Bryan wrote on February 1.

Family Court Judges Deanna R. Rock and Glen R. Stotler appear to have sought employment from people who investigated Goldston’s misconduct and more a judge prone to tripping. Now they are in trouble too.

That’s a lot of judges in hot water, which is rare. The doctrine of judicial immunity has long protected judges from any real consequences for their wrongdoing, as long as those actions are clearly within the scope of their job.

“As early as 1872, the Court recognized that ‘it is a general principle of the greatest importance for the proper administration of justice that a judicial officer, in the exercise of the powers entrusted to him, [should] to be free to act upon his own convictions, without fear of personal consequences to himself,'” according to the US Supreme Court in Stump vs. Sparkman (1978), a case in which an Indiana judge ordered the sterilization of a mildly retarded 15-year-old girl.

As is the tendency with privileges for government officials, the doctrine grew.

“The recent expansion of the judge-ordered exception to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1871, the primary means of redress for civil rights violations, has made state judges immune from suit for even the most bizarre, corrupt, or abusive judicial practices,” Robert Craig Waters he argued in a 1987 article for The Cato Journal. “Over the past decade, this ‘doctrine of judicial immunity’ has led to a disturbing set of legal precedents that effectively deny citizens any compensation for the injuries, inconveniences and wrongful imprisonment caused by errant judges.”

But Goldston and friends pushed their luck so far that they finally found the outer limit of their colleagues’ indulgence.

“Judicial immunity is reserved for judicial actions, and the search of someone’s home is not a judicial action,” the Institute for Justice points out regarding the current case. “Just as police officers cannot act like judges, judges cannot act like police officers. The trial court correctly recognized this principle and denied Goldston judicial immunity for her actions.”

Importantly, this case also defines the limits of the public’s and legislators’ patience with judicial shenanigans. Judges can currently only cover each other; something’s bound to give when high-handed behavior infuriates the people the justice system is supposed to serve.

That still leaves a lot of room for the referees. But, after the Goldston case, it seems judges can’t really search our homes on their own.

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