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KC attorney wants equal justice for judges discipline process

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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -

Frustrated by the secretive way the state of Missouri deals with complaints against judges, Kansas City attorney Michelle Puckett is calling for transparency and revealing the contents of two complaints filed against 43rd judicial circuit court judge Brent Elliot.

When most citizens stand before a judge, the proceedings happen in open court. Judges are treated differently; with closed-door hearings in front of a six-member Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline.

The only time this panel can make details of these cases public as after misconduct is found or a judge under investigation gives the commission permission to talk. It is a process Puckett says is long overdue for change.

"I don't think any type of secrecy in something this important, confidence in our judicial system, should ever be tolerated," Puckett said. "It should be open. It should be public. And I, as a complainant, should have the right to review. It's an important issue."

Puckett's strong feelings stem from her experiences with two separate complaints filed against Elliot.

The first followed a strange exchange made during an otherwise ordinary divorce court proceeding in January 2012. According to the transcript, opposing council Stephen Griffin asked Elliot to allow a last-minute witness.

Puckett objected saying, "this young lady was not listed as a witness."

Griffin responded, "I wanted to see what she looked like to see if this was somebody that the guy would want to spend all his time with."

"Good call," Elliot said.

The judge overruled Puckett's objection and allowed the witness to testify.

Offended by that comment, Puckett's client decided to file a complaint against Elliot for sexist behavior. Puckett says she knew nothing about the complaint.

"He was upset," Puckett said. "He didn't believe I hadn't told her to file this and he wasn't receptive to me at all."

Puckett believes that filing caused further problems between her and Elliot.

"Things became more and more difficult. I felt like it was harder to do what I needed to do as an attorney," Puckett said.

A few months after learning of that complaint, Puckett discovered that files from some of her civil cases, being heard by Elliot, were listed as "missing" on the Missouri court system website, Case.net.

Among the missing items were, "Proposed judgments, letters verifying things that occurred, interactions between the judge and myself, my research and some legal arguments I had in regards to his refusal to sign some documents," Puckett said.

During a hearing for one of those civil cases, circuit court clerk Julie Whitsell testified about the missing items.

She said that Elliot had "scribbled out the docket entry that stated 'correspondence filed' and added 'correspondence was thrown in the trash can.'"

This time, Puckett filed a complaint with the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline, citing a Missouri law against destroying public records.

As previously mentioned, Commission Chairman Skip Walther is barred from discussing cases before the disciplinary panel.

"We can't even disclose the name of the judge of who the complaint was made," Walther said.

Often, the only way to learn what happens behind those closed doors is when people like Puckett share the contents of a complaint filed and the commission's ruling.

Walther said the reason why all the secrecy is because a lot of judges are political figures.

"If a complaint against judges were made public at an early stage that some people could take political advantage by filing a number of complaints, for instances," he said.

According to Walther, the commission receives between eight and 10 new complaints a week.

He says 80 to 85 percent of those are found to be without merit – for appealing court judgments instead of reporting judge misconduct.

Walther can speak generally about the rule against judges destroying documents - the basis of Puckett's complaint.

In order for a judge to face disciplinary action, Walther says he or she must be caught throwing away "public record."

"The question is ‘what is a public record?' And you have to define what a public record is," Walther said.

Clearly the commission decided that the files missing from Puckett's civil case did not meet that definition.

Last July, the panel notified Puckett that "the matters raised did not rise to the level of misconduct contemplated."

Since Walther cannot discuss the specific investigation, he is unable to explain how the commission reached its ruling. But Walther says that may not always be the case.

"While the (Missouri) Supreme Court has not made a determination in that regard whether to increase transparency, some of us on the commission have suggested that would be an appropriate step."

Earlier this year, the Missouri Supreme Court decided to make attorney complaints more open by making that process a matter of public record.

Elliot and his attorney both declined KCTV5's request for an interview on the complaints filed against the judge. But there has been an interesting change made in the 43rd judicial court since the court clerk testified about Elliot disposing of documents.

There is a new local rule giving judges in that jurisdiction alone the authority to destroy any letters from case files.

Click here for more information on the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline.

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