The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 01, 2020 1:00 am

Adams judge abused his power, justices rule

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

The Indiana Supreme Court on Thursday upbraided an Adams Superior Court judge, finding he abused the power of his office in a legal dispute among county officials dating back to 2016. 

At issue was a disagreement over Drug Court Coordinator Kelly Sickafoose's employment status and payment of certain benefits. The dispute involved several county officials, but Superior Court Judge Patrick R. Miller injected himself into the debate at least four times, according to court documents. 

Miller at one point reportedly threatened the county auditor with contempt unless Sickafoose was offered a settlement, an offer that was rejected before a special judge assigned to the case ruled in favor of the auditor. The special judge's decision was upheld on appeal.  

Chief Justice Loretta Rush signed a three-page order reprimanding Miller on Thursday. The ruling says Miller violated four provisions of the state's Code of Judicial Conduct, including a rule requiring judges “to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.”  

Citing an earlier case, Rush wrote that “a public reprimand is a significant blemish on a sitting judge's reputation, adversely affecting the public's evaluation of the judge's performance in office.” 

Discipline charges were filed in March, and Miller cooperated with the investigation, the order says. He is remorseful and “has taken steps to modify his conduct,” Rush wrote. 

Miller, who took the bench in Adams County in 2009, is unopposed in the Republican primary election in June. 

Rush's order came after submission of “a Conditional Agreement for Discipline” between parties involved, and the court could have dismissed the charges, accepted the agreement, appointed judges for a hearing or imposed a fine.

Other possible sanctions included a reprimand, suspension or a permanent ban on holding judicial office in Indiana.

“We accept the parties' agreement,” Rush wrote. 

She noted that such agreements “are often the product of lengthy negotiations and may merit a less severe sanction than might otherwise be imposed after a trial on the merits.”

The dispute over Sickafoose's status arose in 2016, and members of the County Council and Board of Commissioners “did not coordinate the payment of certain county benefits on (her) behalf.”

Miller later – from December 2016 to March 2017, according to court documents – talked with county officials regarding concerns about the drug coordinator's benefits claims as Sickafoose's lawyer negotiated with the county attorney on a settlement. 

Miller issued an order in June 2017 directing the auditor to confirm payment of the claims within 48 hours or face contempt. The case was halted by the state high court, a special county attorney assigned to it notified Miller the claims were paid and Miller was removed from the case. 

The order says Miller wrote to the special judge using Adams Superior Court letterhead, arguing that the auditor should be held in contempt.

He also “regularly communicated with Sickafoose and her attorney – J. Michael Loomis, of Fort Wayne – about a legal filing against the auditor, documents say. 

“Loomis sent emails to the special county attorney giving the impression that he had strategized with Judge Miller on Coordinator's claims,” Rush wrote. “Judge Miller was aware of these emails but took no steps to correct the impression that Loomis was speaking on his behalf.”

The threat to hold the auditor in contempt unless a settlement was offered came in October 2017. 

Miller is at least the fourth Indiana judge to be publicly chastised since November, when the high court found Crawford Circuit Court Judge Sabrina Bell and Clark Circuit Court Judges Andrew Adams and Bradley Jacobs engaged in judicial misconduct by “appearing in public in an intoxicated state and behaving in an injudicious manner and by becoming involved in a verbal altercation.”

The three were at a conference in Indianapolis last year, and Adams and Jacobs were shot. Bell gave someone the middle finger while gathered with other court officials around 3 a.m. outside a fast food restaurant, investigators said.

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