Lewis County Superior Court Judge Addresses Admonishment by Judicial Conduct Commission

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

While recently elected Lewis County Superior Court Judge Joely O’Rourke and her peers in the legal community felt she properly addressed conflicts of interest in her first year on the bench, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct recently ruled she didn’t go far enough to mitigate concerns about impartiality due to her past as a defense attorney.

O’Rourke told The Chronicle Monday she takes the disciplinary action very seriously.

 Commission Cites Lewis County Judge for Prior Involvement in Cases

“My integrity and my ethics are very important to me,” she said. “I really thought I was doing the right thing.”

The commission admonished O’Rourke this month for presiding over cases in which she had previously represented the defendants in her capacity as the county’s attorney for the day, a defense attorney assigned to suspects only for their first court hearing to set bail and assign permanent counsel. 

“Admonishment is the least severe disciplinary action available to the Commission, and in this instance, serves to clarify to the judiciary and the public that this kind of conflict of interest may not be waived, under the Code of Judicial Conduct,” according to the admonishment from the commission.

O’Rourke believed disclosing her past representation of a defendant during a hearing and offering to recuse herself resolved the issue, as did other area attorneys. The disciplinary action came after a complaint to the commission. 

“(O’Rourke) asserted that she had done some research on the issue and had spoken to other, more senior, judges about her situation …” according to the commission. “Additionally, it should be noted that others in the local legal community contacted as part of the Commission’s investigation were operating under the mistaken belief that (O’Rourke’s) disclosure of prior representation was sufficient and that, when a party requested (O’Rourke) disqualify herself from a case, (she) did so without hesitation and transferred the matter to another judicial officer.”

O’Rourke also acted on the advice of an instructor in an educational course for new judges, she said. 

She said the issue has to do with the distinction between conflicts that can be waived and those that can’t

“We all mistakenly thought it was a waivable conflict,” she said. 

O’Rourke noted she was more worried about a different conflict of interest — the fact that her husband, Shane O’Rourke, is a defense attorney based in Centralia. All of his cases are heard by other judges. 

“(O’Rourke), who was very new to the bench when this misconduct occurred, has no prior disciplinary history, and has been entirely cooperative with the Commission,” the admonishment reads.

O’Rourke signed the admonishment and an agreed statement of the facts and pledged both to read the Judicial Code of Ethics and to not repeat the conduct in the future. She said she and Superior Court judges Andrew Toynbee and James Lawler sat down with court staff to make sure all cases she worked on as a defense attorney were properly noted and placed before other judges. 

“The Commission also noted that due to the fact that the rule in question could be misinterpreted, the stipulation was important to inform other judges and attorneys in order to prevent reoccurrences,” a press release from Lewis County Superior Court states. “In order for public confidence in the judiciary to exist, we as judges must be subject to scrutiny and evaluation like any other profession.  As judges, we serve the people of Lewis County, and we promise to continually strive to ensure that the public has confidence in its judiciary.”

The Commission on Judicial Conduct identified one particular case of concern, outlined in their admonishment of O’Rourke, in which she presided over a guilty-plea hearing on Feb. 22, 2017, and a sentencing hearing on March 8, 2017, in a case involving a defendant — Isaiah Kelly, then 20, of Federal Way — who she represented at a preliminary hearing the previous year. 

Kelly pleaded guilty to residential burglary in a plea deal and was sentenced to three days of time-served as a first-time offender. He was originally accused of kicking open a door to an occupied home and stealing several items while the terrified resident hid, according to court documents. 

The Chronicle followed the case and reported at Kelly’s sentencing hearing that O’Rourke mentioned she represented Kelly at his preliminary hearing, and asked if either party had an objection. She noted, after the defense attorney argued that the burglary was an “aberration” from Kelly’s character, that she remembered him as “respectful.”

Her formal admonishment from the Commission on Judicial Conduct includes the transcript of her full statement, which reads, “Well, I actually, I remember (this defendant), and I remember thinking he was different than most of the people that I dealt with when I was a defense attorney. I remember telling the judge I felt like it was outside of his character to do something like this,” O’Rourke said. “In my dealings with him he was a very respectful young man.”

O’Rourke sentenced Kelly according to the agreed recommendation from both the defense and prosecution. 

While the commission only mentioned the one case in particular, it ruled that it was not an “isolated incident.”

Before her election, O’Rourke worked as a prosecutor in Lewis County, and from 2014 to 2016 was the “attorney of the day,” acting as a public defender to suspects at their preliminary court hearings. 

In that capacity, O’Rourke advised nearly every defendant in Lewis County district and superior courts on their constitutional rights and the charges against them, argued in their favor regarding a bail amount and screened them for their qualification for court-appointed counsel. 

“Therefore this conflict arose in the majority of criminal cases charged in 2016 in which she presided over as judge,” the commission’s admonishment reads. “The nature of the misconduct was to give the appearance that a criminal defendant may be at an advantage in a proceeding, or might not face an impartial arbiter, thus undermining public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.