The Judicial Inquiry Commission is the government body responsible for evaluating and investigating allegations of misconduct by Alabama judges and, where appropriate, filing formal charges against judges who have engaged in unethical behavior. It was created in 1973 when Alabama adopted Amendment No. 328 to the Alabama Constitution (now §§ 139-162, Ala. Const. 1901 (Off. Recomp.)). The Judicial Inquiry Commission is convened permanently as an independent agency within the judicial branch of government.
Pursuant to Article VI, § 156(a), of the Alabama Constitution, the Commission consists of nine members: a judge of an intermediate appellate court, appointed by the Alabama Supreme Court; three persons who are not lawyers or judges and a district judge, appointed by the Governor and subject to confirmation by the Alabama Senate; two circuit judges, appointed by the Alabama Circuit Judges’ Association; and two members of the Alabama State Bar, appointed by the Commissioners of the Alabama State Bar. Thus, seven Commission members are appointed by elected Alabama officials, with four of those members also being confirmed by the Alabama Senate. They each serve four-year terms.
The Commission has the following authority:
- initiate or receive complaints filed by any aggrieved person concerning any alleged violation by a judge of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics, misconduct in judicial office, failure to perform judicial duties, or inability to perform judicial duties because of a physical or mental disability;
- conduct confidential investigations of allegations asserted in complaints filed with it;
- file charges in the Court of the Judiciary upon the finding by a majority of the Judicial Inquiry Commission that a reasonable basis exists to charge an Alabama judge with a violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, misconduct in office, failure to perform judicial duties, or inability to perform judicial duties because of a physical or mental disability; and
- prosecute charges the Commission files in the Court of the Judiciary (which, by rule of the Court of the Judiciary, the Commission is required to prove by clear and convincing evidence) and defend any appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court from the decision of the Court of Judiciary.
The Commission can only consider complaints against the following:
- Alabama appellate court judges;
- Alabama Circuit Court judges;
- Alabama District Court judges;
- Alabama Probate Court judges;
- Alabama municipal judges; and
- Alabama Tax Tribunal judges.
The Commission cannot consider complaints against the following:
- Federal judges;
- Former state judges who are retired and inactive;
- Individuals who perform judicial or quasi-judicial functions such as private judges, arbitrators, or mediators;
- Individuals who work for the court system such as court administrators, clerks, referees, masters, or magistrates;
- Elected officials who are not judges;
- Attorneys (non-judges); or
- Administrative law judges.
The Commission does not have the authority to consider all allegations involving judges.
For example, it does not review allegations of mere legal error or of abuse of judicial discretion, absent evidence of intentionally or consistently ignoring the law, evidence of abuse of judicial power, or other evidence of bad faith. These complaints of “legal error” can only be considered by appealing your case. Filing a complaint is not a substitute for appeal and has no effect on your legal or appellate rights.
There are, however, many other types of conduct that the Commission will consider. Generally, these fall into three categories:
- Mental or Physical Disability: This means that a judge is either mentally or physically unable to perform the duties of a judge.
- Misconduct in Office: This involves unlawful conduct (i.e., violation of the Alabama Ethics Law or other law).
- Ethical Misconduct: Most complaints brought to the Commission fit within this category, which covers a broad range of improper or unprofessional behavior. Since there is no precise definition of what will be considered “ethical misconduct,” you have to make that determination for yourself. For guidance, you might consult the Canons of Judicial Ethics or review examples of conduct that the Commission has found to warrant bringing charges by viewing past cases filed in the Court of the Judiciary at https://judicial.alabama.gov/appellate/judiciary.
No. The Commission may only institute proceedings upon receiving “a verified complaint” filed either by a member of the public or by a member of the Commission or its staff. The complaint must be signed and notarized by the complainant.
No. All proceedings of the Commission are confidential except the filing of formal charges with the Court of the Judiciary.
The Commission is required to maintain the confidentiality of all complaints and investigations unless formal charges are filed. The only proceedings of the Commission that are not confidential are the filing of formal charges with the Court of the Judiciary.
This means that the Commission cannot provide any information of any kind to anyone who contacts the Commission about a pending or prior complaint or investigation. The Commission cannot even confirm or deny the existence of a complaint or investigation.
However, neither a complainant nor a judge is required to keep confidential any allegations or the fact that a complaint has been filed or communications with the Commission.
If a complaint is dismissed after a preliminary review without opening an investigation, the judge will not be notified of the existence of that complaint.
No. All proceedings of the Commission are confidential except the filing of formal charges with the Court of the Judiciary. This means that the Commission cannot provide any information of any kind to anyone who contacts the Commission about pending or prior complaints or investigations. The Commission cannot even confirm or deny the existence of a complaint or investigation.
No. “A judge is not automatically disqualified solely because a party in a case pending before the judge files a complaint against the judge; to hold otherwise would invite the filing of a complaint solely to obtain a judge’s disqualification and would invite judge shopping.” Dunlop Tire Corp. v. Allen, 725 So. 2d 960, 977 (Ala. 1998) (cleaned up).
As with any question of disqualification, a judge must make that determination based on the requirements of Canon 3C. Just as judges have a duty to disqualify when circumstances require under Canon 3C, they have a duty not to disqualify when circumstances do not require. Judges are elected by the people of Alabama and have a duty to their constituents to dispose of any matter properly before the court unless the law requires otherwise.
Moreover, if a complaint is dismissed after the preliminary review without opening an investigation, the judge is never even notified of the existence of that complaint.
The Court of the Judiciary is the second tier in Alabama’s two-tier judicial-conduct system. If a majority of the Commission finds that a reasonable basis exists to charge an Alabama judge with a violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, misconduct in office, failure to perform judicial duties, or inability to perform judicial duties because of a physical or mental disability, then it will file charges in the Court of the Judiciary.
The Court of the Judiciary operates likes a regular trial court and holds hearings on charges brought by the Commission. The Commission’s lawyers act as the prosecutor and present the case in support of the charges, which must be proved by “clear and convincing evidence.” The Court then decides whether or not discipline is warranted and, if so, what kind of discipline is appropriate, including: removal, suspension without pay, censure, or such other sanction as may be prescribed by law.
For more information on the Court of the Judiciary, please visit: https://judicial.alabama.gov/appellate/judiciary.