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Michels appeals censure case to U.S. Supreme Court

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Judge Steven Michels

Today, Sunnyside attorney Steven Michels is back dispensing rulings from the Sunnyside Municipal Court bench, while waiting to hear if the highest court in the land will hear his case against the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Michels is contending he was treated unfairly by the Commission during its investigation of his time as a judge pro-tem in the Toppenish Municipal Court between 1996-2001. The Commission took nearly three years to conduct its investigation charging Michels with serving as both lawyer and judge in numerous cases in the neighboring community.

Michels has filed a writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to review and evaluate the Commission's methods. He maintained throughout the Commission's investigation and the subsequent censure that any violations of the state Judicial Code were unintentional.

"We are hoping the Justices will look at his case and agree to evaluate how the Commission conducts its future investigations of lower court judges," said Phillip Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court Justice, who is representing Michels in his appeal.

"We believe the Commission's actions were questionable," Talmadge said. "The Commission's procedures need to be examined."

Saying the length of time over which the Michels' case was investigated violated his rights to a speedy conclusion of the case, Talmadge is hopeful the Supreme Court will see the inequities in the way the Commission deals with lower court judges.

"It took nearly three years for Michels' case to come to a conclusion even though he immediately took steps to remedy so-called violations," said Talmadge. "We feel the end result was incredibly unfair."

Michels, who has served his 120-day suspension from the bench, lost his censure appeal in September 2003, when the state Supreme Court voted 8-1 to concur with the Commission's recommendation to censure Judge Michels for having violated the state Code of Judicial Conduct.

The state court's ruling concurred that Michels' actions while serving as a visiting judge in the Toppenish Municipal Court denied numerous defendants their constitutional rights. Michels was accused of having failed to disqualify himself as a judge in matters where he had previously served as the lawyer of record.

While Michels made immediate changes to his conduct upon being made aware of the conflict, what is at question is the length of time and method in which the Commission conducted its lengthy investigation. Talmadge said Michels waited a little more than two years to hear what punishment the Commission would have for him. He, in the meantime, took steps to remedy the situation, Talmadge said.

The Commission discovered in 1998 that Michels might have been in violation of judicial ethic rules, but waited until 2001 to offer its ruling.

Michels' case should have been handled in a more timely basis, Talmadge said.

"Michels had at least the same rights as a criminal to a speedy trial," he added.

Talmadge said he is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court justices may find the case intriguing enough to consider examining, noting it may be several months before the Court announces which cases it will hear in October.

Michels said he is ready to again serve on the Sunnyside city court bench, having abided by the state Supreme Court's ruling.

"I've done what they wanted me to do," Michels said.

As part of his suspension, Michels was required to attend judicial training before being allowed to return to the bench.

His four-month without pay suspension came to an end Jan. 2.

. Julia Hart can be contacted at

(509) 837-4500, or you can e-mail her at jhart@eaglenewspapers.com

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