Utah judge pays big price for publicly disparaging Trump in courtroom and online

A Utah judge is learning the hard way that his position does not excuse his “improper use of judicial authority” in publicly criticizing President Trump.

Judge Michael Kwan has been suspended for six months without pay as the Supreme Court of Utah did not agree with his argument that disparaging the president was part of his constitutional right to free speech, KSL.com reported.

(Video: KSL.com)

In a ruling last week, the Court cited Kwan, who has served as the justice court judge in Taylorsville for two decades, for “improper use of judicial authority and his inappropriate political commentary” over negative comments about Trump he made on social media and in his courtroom.

Several examples were highlighted by the court of Kwan’s repeated disparagement of the president, even when he was still a candidate in 2016. The judge’s remarks were made on his Facebook page as well as in court as he oversaw cases.

“Think I’ll go to the shelter to adopt a cat before the President-Elect grabs them all,” he wrote on Facebook after the 2016 election, referring to the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump making inappropriate remarks about women. In another post about a month after the inauguration, Kwan wrote “welcome to the beginning of the fascist takeover,” and wondered if Congressional Republicans would become “the American Reichstag,” according to NBC News.

He expressed his anti-Trump views in the courtroom as well, mocking the president after a defendant in 2017 noted that he was praying to get a large tax return from Trump’s proposed tax reform plan so he could pay off his fines and avoid jail time.

“Prayer might be the answer,” Kwan said, “’cause he just signed an order to start building the wall and he has no money to do that, and so if you think you are going to get taxes back this year, uh, yeah, maybe, maybe not. But don’t worry, there is a tax cut for the wealthy, so if you make over $500,000 you’re getting a tax cut.”

The judge defended his First Amendment right to say what he believed about any politician, citing his “constitutionally protected speech” while contending that his remarks were meant as “social commentary or humor.”

Utah Supreme Court Justice John Pearce, who wrote the ruling last week, was not buying it.

“It is an immutable and universal rule that judges are not as funny as they think they are,” he wrote. “If someone laughs at a judge’s joke, there is a decent chance that the laughter was dictated by the courtroom’s power dynamic and not by a genuine belief that the joke was funny.”

Michael Moore, a former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, told CNN he believes Kwan’s suspension was deserved as “we want them to have some appearance of impartiality.”

(Video: YouTube/CNN)

“In this instance it looked as if the judge was over the line and it’s probably well-deserved that he got a suspension,” Moore said, adding that “judges don’t give up the right to have an opinion,” but because of their position, those opinions can be highly influential or intimidating to those in the courtroom.

The court dismissed each of Kwan’s arguments, noting that he “has been the subject of prior discipline and the recipient of prior guidance.”

“Judge Kwan’s behavior denigrates his reputation as an impartial, independent, dignified, and courteous jurist who takes no advantage of the office in which he serves,” the court said. “And it diminishes the reputation of our entire judiciary.”

“We note that previous endeavors to help Judge Kwan correct this behavior have not been successful. And we regretfully conclude that a sanction less severe than suspension without pay will suffer the same fate as our prior attempts,” Pearce wrote in the court’s opinion.

Former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz applauded the court’s decision.

While Kwan stood by his contention that he had a right to speak freely on his private Facebook page, the Utah Supreme Court reminded him of the personal sacrifices required when serving the public.

“Fulfillment of judicial duties does not come without personal sacrifice of some opportunities and privileges available to the public at large,” Pearce wrote. “And as a person the public entrusts to decide issues with the utmost fairness, independence, and impartiality, a judge must at times set aside the power of his or her voice.”

Many applauded the decision to hold Kwan accountable and reacted to the ruling on Twitter.

 

Frieda Powers

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