A judicial oversight board has dismissed an ethics complaint against a Douglas County judge accused of meddling in his daughter's drunken-driving case.
Douglas County District Judge Michael Coffey acted as a father would and did nothing that would discredit the bench, according to the conclusion of the Nebraska Commission on Judicial Qualifications.
Coffey had been the subject of an ethics complaint — initiated by his ex-wife, Stacy Ryan — over his involvement in a DUI case involving the couple's adult daughter.
The 10-member Qualifications Commission — made up of Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican, attorneys and citizens — referred Coffey's case to a retired judge for review on whether he committed any ethical violations that would erode public confidence in the judiciary.
After such hearings, judges can face private or public reprimand, suspension or, in extremely rare cases, removal from the bench.
Jeffre Cheuvront, the retired judge who reviewed Coffey's case, recommended no action be taken on several of the complaints against Coffey — though Cheuvront did question Coffey's contact with probation administrators at one point in his daughter's case.
The commission, however, found no fault on the part of Coffey.
“We find that (Coffey's) conduct did not rise to the level of an abuse of the prestige of the judicial office he holds,” the commission wrote.
The commission noted that no one but Coffey's ex-wife aired any concerns about his behavior.
The commission's 32-page order addressed several circumstances involving Coffey and his daughter.
March 11, 2011: A Douglas County judge placed Coffey's daughter, Megan, 23 at the time, on probation for her second DUI. Her one year of probation included a provision suspending her license to drive.
March 29, 2011: Megan Coffey drove seven blocks to her father's home for dinner. Judge Coffey said he immediately told his daughter she wasn't supposed to be driving. After dinner, he followed her to her home while she drove in a separate vehicle.
Ryan accused Coffey of allowing their daughter to violate probation. Coffey's attorney argued that Coffey was merely taking corrective action to ensure that his daughter didn't drive elsewhere.
The commission concluded: “It was respondent's adult daughter, not Judge Coffey, who was driving on a suspended license.”
Cheuvront put it this way: “These events had nothing to do with his judicial activities and occurred at his home with only family present.”
July 23, 2011: Acting on a tip from Ryan, two Douglas County probation officers went to Judge Coffey's lake house in the Omaha area. The officers went to the backyard and discovered that Megan Coffey “had been drinking alcohol in violation of her probation.” The judge was not present at the house on that Saturday night.
July 26, 2011: The judge contacted Ron Broich, head of Douglas County probation, and expressed concern that his house had been searched without a warrant, that his daughter was being supervised more strictly than others and that a probation officer had “tried to intimidate her.”
“My own initial reaction to the search of Judge Coffey's home without his consent was whether this was permissible or appropriate,” Cheuvront wrote. “Judge Coffey cannot be faulted for having the same reaction and inquiring as to what prompted the search.”
The commission also noted that none of the probation officers complained about Coffey's inquiries, nor did they say they felt intimidated.
Nov. 15, 2011: Coffey learned that his ex-wife would be obtaining alcohol test results from their daughter's probation file. Coffey, in turn, called his daughter's probation officer and supervisors, including Nebraska's chief probation officer, and objected to the release of the information.
Cheuvront found that the contact with probation administrators went too far. Coffey had repeatedly referred to applicable law and his belief that probation records were private.
The commission disagreed with Cheuvront's conclusion that Coffey violated the judicial code.
“While in retrospect it may have been more prudent for Judge Coffey to have avoided the contacts (with probation) ... these contacts (were not) bullying, adversarial, rancorous or threatening to any of the probation officers,” the commission wrote.
“The evidence shows Judge Coffey was brought into these varying circumstances in his capacity as father and he responded in that same capacity. (The) law appears to afford him that right.”