It is often been said that ignorance of the law is no excuse. But when it's a judge who is claiming ignorance, well, that's not just inexcusable, it's also laughable.

Call it negligence in the first degree.

We bring this up because of a document from the Judicial Tenure Commission that landed anonymously in our mail slot a few days ago. The commission, it turns out, ruled last week that 36th District Court Brenda K. Sanders committed a distinct no-no when she ran for mayor of Detroit in the February primary.

It says something about Sanders' profile in that race that no one — including us — appeared to notice that she was violating the Michigan Code of Judicial Conduct by running for mayor while sitting on the bench. Of the more than 90,000 votes cast in that primary, she received a whopping 199. Good thing she already had a back-up job.

Although it seems obvious in retrospect, a lot of people apparently don't know that you can't run and sit at the same time. At least no one, as far as we can tell, called Sanders on it during her campaign. Maybe they just didn't care, since she had zero chance of winning.

We should cut Sanders a bit of slack since she was only elected to a six-year term on the bench in November 2008. On the other hand, she worked as house counsel for the 36th District Court for 20 years before her election as a judge, so any slack being cut should be fairly short.

According to the commission's findings, Sanders began her run for mayor before winning her judicial election. Because of the timing, she was unable to remove her name from the Feb. 24 mayoral primary ballot in a special election held to determine who would serve out the term of the ousted Kwame Kilpatrick.

If Sanders had sat quietly on the sidelines while that election played out, she might not have found herself in the crosshairs of the commission. However, the commission determined that she mounted an actual campaign. Among the items listed as evidence was the candidate questionnaire she filled out for this rag.

One of our questions at that time was: Can you recount a difficult situation that required you to display a high degree of personal integrity?

Her answer: "I was a practicing attorney for almost 24 years. The daily practice of law is one that demands a high degree of personal integrity. Many of the cases presented difficult situations however; personal integrity is a character trait that must be employed on a daily basis. I handled thousands and thousands of cases over the years. I had the opportunity to serve thousands of citizens in many different ways. One has to have integrity and accountability in every situation."

That response is particularly interesting considering that the commission, in a negotiated settlement that Sanders agreed to, pointed out her failure to "establish, maintain, enforce and observe high standards of conduct so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary may be preserved. ..."

Among other things, Sanders served as treasurer of her mayoral campaign, putting her in a particularly awkward position.

In its action, the commission also noted, "A judge's self-professed ignorance of a rule which all judges in this state are obligated to understand exhibits a fundamental disregard for the Code of Judicial Conduct. Even a cursory review of the table of contents should have alerted [Judge Sanders] to the obvious problems with her dual role as a judge and nonjudicial candidate."

Because the incident appeared to be isolated, and because there was no evidence of misconduct on the bench, the commission dropped its hammer lightly, recommending that the state Supreme Court publicly censure Sanders and suspend her without pay for 21 days. The high court will hand down a final decision at some point in the near future, but, with negotiated agreements like this one, it usually follows the commission's recommendation.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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