Updated: Heavey agrees he violated the code of ethics and has been admonished, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct announced today. More below.
It might have been ok for citizen Mike Heavey to write letters in support of now-convicted Seattle killer Amanda Knox in Italy and talk publicly about the injustice of her trial Italian-style.
But it wasn't ok for King County Superior Court Judge Michael Heavey to use court time, materials and employees to draw up those letters, and for him to speak out on her behalf as a sitting judge, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct charged Tuesday. It adds up to improper judicial advocacy, says the CJC in a statement of charges:
Respondent is charged with violating Canons 1, 2(A)and 2(B) of the Code of Judicial Conduct by writing letters on official court stationary to Nicola Mancino, Judge
Claudia Matteini, and Giuliano Mignini (members of the Italian judicial system) on behalf
of criminal defendant Amanda Knox; utilizing court staff to type those letters; and speaking publicly on several occasions about that same pending criminal case in an attempt to influence the proceeding.
The CJC began its inquiry last year, though it isn't so far saying who filed a complaint and why. Seattleites remain divided over Knox's guilt or innocence and one Italian prosecutor was especially testy about criticism eliminating from here; at one point he threatened to sue the West Seattle Herald for quoting Knox supporters who called him "mentally unstable."
Following a CJC probe, Heavey responded with his side of the story. The commission subsequently concluded that the judge violated the conduct code. Heavey, in a statement on Tuesday, denied the violations:
Amanda Knox was a neighbor and a classmate of my daughter. The crux of the charge is that I lent the prestige of my office to advance the private interests of Amanda Knox. My letters were basically to speak out against the injustice of improper actions designed to prevent a fair and impartial trial. This is not advancing a private interest. It is addressing fundamental principles of due process and fairness. My actions were to serve the interests of justice. I hope that the Commission on Judicial Conduct will recognize that and acquit me of any violation. This is a pending matter and I will not make further comment at this time.
He did however tell the Herald that "I self-reported this [potential misconduct] to the CJC January 22, 2009. A judge should not advance his private interest. I was not. I was advancing the interest of justice. I said in the letters that Amanda was not going to get a fair trial. that the people of Italy already had their hearts hardened which would deny her a fair trial, and that no evidence can soften their hearts."
It was daughter Shana, he added, "who piqued my interest in Amanda's case. When Shana first learned about the case, she told me 'Amanda does not have a mean bone in her body.'"
Heavey did not explain why he felt compelled to self-report or why he allegedly used office materials and employees to create and handle the letters.
The case could be resolved through negotiations or a public hearing. The CJC can dismiss the charges or admonish, reprimand or censure a judge. It can also recommend the state Supreme Court suspend or remove a judge.
Heavey wrote to the Italian council that regulates judges to ask that the case be moved out of Perugia and to protest leaks from the prosecutor, police and prison officials to the tabloid press.
"Amanda Knox is in grave danger of being convicted of the murder because of illegal and improper poisoning of public opinion and judicial opinion," Heavey wrote. "I respectfully submit that the prosecutor's office, police and prison employees have made illegal and false statements ... These false reports have wrongfully poisoned the well of public opinion against Amanda."
Similar concerns prompted Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to write to the Italian ambassador in the U.S. and the American ambassador in Italy urging that Knox get a "fair trial by an impartial tribunal."
The canons Heavey is accused of violating include requirements that "Judges shall uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary" and that "Judges should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all their activities." To that end, family, social, or other relationships should not influence their judicial conduct or judgment, and "Judges should not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others."
Update: The CJC today reports Heavey has stipulated he violated the judicial conduct code by "using his status as a judge to attempt to influence a criminal proceeding in another country, thereby exploiting his judicial office for the benefit of another."
The state agreed Heavey did not "flagrantly or intentionally" violate the canons, and his actions harmed no one; he also self-reported the matter to the state, the CJC noted. But both he and the CJC agreed his actions "negatively affected the integrity of and respect for" the bench.
He was "admonished" for his actions - effectively a hand-slap, the least-severe discipline the state can hand down. More details here.
The CJC also admonished King County District Court Judge Frank LaSalata today for an angry outburst last October, geting in the face of a deputy prosecutor and telling her he would "rip her head off."