- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 3, 2014

CINCINNATI (AP) - Although a rural Ohio county’s judges actions were “petty, unethical and unworthy of his office,” he is still immune from being sued by an attorney who got fired after the judge kicked him off all the cases in his courtroom, an appeals court panel found Tuesday.

The decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals stems from a 2012 lawsuit filed by attorney Robert Bright against Judge David Dean Evans in Gallia County in southeastern Ohio’s Appalachian country, just across the West Virginia line.

Bright’s lawsuit accused Evans, the county, its board of commissioners and its public defender’s office of violating his constitutional rights to freedom of speech and due process.

The public defender’s office fired Bright in September 2011 after Evans removed him from all the 60-some cases pending in his courtroom because of a “conflict he created with the court.” The judge cited a lengthy motion in which Bright criticized some of Evans’ practices, such as setting strict deadlines for entering plea agreements.

The Ohio Supreme Court found “serious ethical questions” with Evans’ treatment of Bright and said that instead of removing the attorney from the cases, Evans should have recused himself. The court gave Evans a one-year suspension, stayed on condition he commit no misconduct.



In Tuesday’s decision, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit wrote that Evans overreacted, and caused great hardship to Bright by wrongfully removing him from the cases.

“Judge Evans’s actions were petty, unethical, and unworthy of his office,” according to the ruling, written by Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore. “Judge Evans has brought dishonor on himself and his position.”

Even so, Moore wrote that the panel must protect judicial independence and immunity from liability.

“In our legal system, there is often someone who loses his money, his liberty, or his life. This cannot be helped,” she wrote. “But if that defeated party could turn around and file suit against the judge or judges in his case, then the whole system would unravel as the threat of suit crept into the judges’ minds.”

Bright’s attorney, Cincinnati civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein, said he’s considering whether to request the full 6th Circuit reconsider his client’s case, focusing not on Judge Evans’ immunity but on Bright’s right to freedom of speech.

“At its root, what happened to Mr. Bright is retaliation for his advocacy (of his client),” Gerhardstein said. “That out to be protected by the First Amendment.”

Evans’ Cincinnati attorney, Linda Woeber, declined to comment over the phone but said in an email that “the court made absolutely the right decision in preserving judicial immunity.”

As for the judges’ comments about Evans’ actions, Woeber referred to the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling sanctioning Evans, saying that the state’s highest court also noted the judge’s “absence of any prior disciplinary record; absence of a dishonest or selfish motive; full and free disclosure to the disciplinary board and a cooperative attitude toward the proceedings; and his good character and reputation.”

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Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AmandaLeeAP

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