Embattled Kentucky judge agrees to temporary suspension

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Posted: Apr 15, 2016 6:43 PM

A black judge embroiled in a racially charged feud with a white prosecutor agreed Friday to temporarily step down from the bench while he fights misconduct charges before Kentucky's Judicial Conduct Commission.

The charges largely stem from Jefferson Circuit Judge Olu Stevens' online comments suggesting Commonwealth's Attorney Thomas Wine is a racist who wants "all-white juries." Wine had questioned his legal authority to dismiss a properly seated jury because it lacked minorities.

Stevens agreed to a temporary paid suspension, effective Monday, pending a final hearing in the case, said Steve Wolnitzek, chairman of the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission.

The commission has charged Stevens with six counts of misconduct.

"Judge Stevens determined that it was in the best interest of all of the parties and the community to enter into this agreement," said his attorney, Larry Wilder. "Now we can all focus on the issues at hand regarding the First Amendment and the alleged misconduct."

The judge also has taken his fight to a federal court, filing a lawsuit accusing the conduct commission of violating his First Amendment rights. Stevens has asked the federal court to prevent the commission from sanctioning him for his speech.

Stevens' decision to temporarily step down from the bench means a judicial conduct commission hearing scheduled for Tuesday was canceled, Wolnitzek said.

The commission will decide soon when to schedule the final hearing on whether the judge violated codes of conduct for judges, likely within the next three months.

Wilder has said his client is a "passionate man" who believed he was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech by drawing attention to important issues.

"Judge Stevens in no way, shape or form embarked on a quest to be disrespectful of the rules or violate the rules of conduct of a judge," Wilder said Friday.

If found in violation of those conduct codes, the judge's possible punishment could range from a reprimand to removal from the bench.

The ordeal began in November 2014 when Stevens dismissed a jury panel because he said it did not represent a true cross-section of the community. Wine asked the state Supreme Court to review whether Stevens had the legal authority to dismiss the jury. Stevens took to Facebook to question Wine's motives, according to the conduct commission's report. He suggested there was "something much more sinister" behind his motivations and said Wine "will live in infamy."

He repeated his criticism of the elected prosecutor at a presentation at a Louisville Bar Association meeting.

Wine asked the Supreme Court to review Stevens' comments, alleging that his "extreme distaste" for Wine would make it impossible for him to hear cases fairly and impartially. The Supreme Court has removed Stevens from several criminal trials and directed the case to the conduct commission.

Jeff Cooke, a spokesman for Wine's office, declined to comment Friday on Stevens' temporary suspension. The prosecutor has previously said he asked the Supreme Court to review Stevens' dismissal of the jury to clarify the law so it can be applied consistently in courtrooms across the state.

The conduct commission's report also included charges related to another high-profile incident, in which Stevens criticized a 3-year-old crime victim for telling the court she feared black men as a result of the crime. The child's mother, whose family was held at gunpoint by two African-American men during an armed robbery, wrote a victim impact statement to the court saying the girl had developed a fear of black men.

Stevens said he was "deeply offended by that."

"Do 3-year-olds form such generalized, stereotyped and racist opinions of others? I think not," he wrote on Facebook. "Perhaps the mother had attributed her own views to her child as a manner of sanitizing them."

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Associated Press Writer Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.