State Sen. Ernie Chambers says the public has a right to know what formal ethical charge has been filed against a Douglas County judge.
Chambers said he attempted to review a formal complaint against District Judge Michael Coffey on Thursday but was rebuffed by a clerk who told him that the complaint had been sealed.
A Nebraska Supreme Court judge later called Chambers and said the Supreme Court takes the position that such formal complaints are not public — until a formal hearing begins, Chambers said.
A hearing on Coffey's case is scheduled for mid-July. The 10-member Judicial Qualifications Commission — made up of judges, attorneys and citizens — recommends to the Nebraska Supreme Court whether a judge should be reprimanded, suspended or cleared of any alleged ethical violation.
Chambers, a longtime judicial watchdog, disagreed with the Supreme Court's interpretation of when information is confidential. The state senator said he understands that random, unverified complaints against judges aren't public.
But once the Judicial Qualifications Commission has investigated and alleged an ethical violation, the formal complaint should be made public, Chambers said.
Chambers noted that formal ethical complaints against attorneys are public, as are criminal complaints against citizens.
“The double standard here is crystal clear,” Chambers said. “I don't think the public should be kept in the dark just because this is a judge.”
Chief Justice Mike Heavican was out of the office and unavailable Thursday. In his place, Judge John Wright declined to comment, except to refer a reporter to a provision in the Nebraska Constitution.
That provision says: “All papers filed with and proceedings before the (Judicial Qualifications) Commission, prior to any formal open hearing, are confidential.”
Chambers said that provision refers to a citizen's written complaints about a judge, not the commission's formal complaint against a judge. There's a difference, he said, between something that is filed with the commission and a formal complaint that is filed by the commission.
The state senator said he will consider introducing legislation next session to ensure that the Supreme Court “cannot cover for a judge by keeping it from the public.”
“Judges are held to a higher standard — and that means greater accountability,” Chambers said. “When things like this are kept from the public, it affects the confidence the people will have in the judiciary.”
Coffey, a judge since 1998, declined to comment.
The nature of the current allegations are unknown. Coffey has come under scrutiny — sometimes from an ex-wife, sometimes from Chambers — for previous activities outside court.
Chambers once filed a complaint over Coffey's receipt of tickets for a Van Halen concert at the then-Qwest Center downtown. The commission declined to find ethical violations in that case.
The commission publicly reprimanded Coffey in 2005 for helping with a fundraising event for the Nebraska chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The judicial code bars judges from soliciting money or lending their names to fundraising efforts.