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Based on what I have heard, judges in United States can cancel the traffic ticket of an individual or imprison another simply because something they don't like in some person.

(Here I would not expect the judge to admit that they did not like something in the person (such as social status or race) but might instead claim that their decision was because of, for example, something in persons behavior.)

This question was prompted by the many cases where individuals (often African-American) have been imprisoned for decades and later found innocent.

So what I wanted to know is what limits, if any, are set for judges in U.S. courts.

  1. Could a judge cancel his own or (without requiring court appearance) his relatives traffic ticket?
  2. Could a judge declare an individual as guilty simply because they want to, esp. if the case does not have much direct evidence either for or against an indictment?

(I am not interested in what they are expected to do, or how they are expected to behave in their position, but what they are able to do without accountability.)

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First, the proper immediate action is to - while not leaving the judicial branch - appeal up to the next higher court. In federal courts, the lowest levels are district courts, which issues decisions appealable to the circuit courts, whose decisions are sometimes able to make their way to the Supreme Court by submitting a Petition for Writ of Certiorari. Then the Supreme Court meets and decides which appeals it will hear for the year ahead.

This works similarly on a state level, except the levels of the courts may have different names (for example, Washington, DC’s trial level court is not the District Court, but the Superior Court. In Virginia, one trial court is the General District Court, which hears claims up to $25,000 and another trial court is the Virginia Circuit Court which hears other claims, and some felonies while also serving as an appellate court for the General District Court).

Assuming those options have been exhausted, the reality is yeah, sometimes there are judges who will act that way. Sometimes they will get away with it because they are maintaining enough discretion, they are powerful enough, or because someone else is corrupt, too.

A number of options and variables may come into play at this point. What, if any, laws exist to prevent the behavior in question? What ethics standard does the jurisdiction have (this would likely be developed by the local bar association)? Are there any other organizations he or she is affiliated with professionally? Who else knows about it, how serious is it, will anyone else speak up, etc...? Each of those variables - and likely a number of others not mentioned here - may play into the outcome. They each can serve to make one’s actions more or less easy or desirable to perform, whether by exposing and embarrassing an actor, reminding him or her of the potential legal liability associated with such actions, etc.

All that said, there are limits on what a judge may or may not do. For example, in federal criminal cases, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, rules assembled by the US Sentencing Commission that are, of course, non-binding, set a floor and ceiling on the years in prison one should be sentenced to in various circumstances with a formula used to make the calculation. It is rare (and sometimes controversial and subject to scrutiny) if a judge grossly or unreasonable deviates from the Guidelines. The intent of the Guidelines is to remove judicial bias from the doling out of prison sentences. Results have arguably been mixed.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention that in general judicial discretion in many aspects of litigation is a desirable and useful occurrence, whether it manifests itself in the dismissal of a frivolous case or appointing counsel to an indigent defendant.

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  • 1
    Judges have judicial conduct rules that they must follow and if they fail to do so they can be removed from office. For example, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore was twice removed from judicial office through that kind of process. Also, while most higher level judges have permanent judicial tenure, low level municipal judges often do not and can be removed by the appointing authority. For example, a Colorado municipal judge resigned in the face of a threat to remove him from office on this basis this year and in MS the municipality fired the judge and abolished his court due to his misconduct.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 13 '17 at 4:31
  • Federal judges who do not resign in the face of judicial misconduct proceedings can be impeached and they are from time to time most recently in 2010.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 13 '17 at 4:32
  • Example 1 in this question is clear judicial misconduct. Example 2 would ordinarily be considered an appellate matter but could rise to a judicial misconduct issue if it were pervasive.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 13 '17 at 4:35
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US Judges may not lawfully convict or imprison anyone without a trial. Anyone is entitled to a jury trial, and a judge may not sentence someone unless that person is convicted by the jury. Attempting to do so would get a judge in serious trouble promptly. A judge can often influence the jury significantly, however.

A judge can put a person in jail for contempt of court, but only for actions committed in court or in regard to court proceedings, and such orders can be appealed to a higher court. People are usually held for contempt only for relatively short periods, days or weeks, not years.

A criminal conviction can normally be appealed to a higher court if there was improper procedure. Improper bias on the part of a judge can be grounds for an appeal.

Traffic judges are a separate group for the judges who preside in the general courts that try serious crimes. Traffic judges used to have the power to dismiss tickets for anyone they chose, but in most jurisdictions such dismissals must now be justified in writing, and include a hearing record. A judge who simply "fixes" the tickets od family or friends may well get in serious trouble. Less direct influence may in some cases be corruptly used, however. Traffic judges may not generally sentence someone to jail for long periods of time, and not at all without a hearing. Trials and hearings must normally be public. However a traffic judge does have wide discretion on whether to convict or acquit at a hearing for a traffic offense, although the penalties for a given offense are in many states fixed or subject to only a narrow range of possibilities.

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Of course a judge can act incompetently or even illegally. In the event of the latter (like ruling against a citizen simply because of race, thereby violating the Civil Rights Act), the recourse is to appeal to a higher-level executive to levy a charge (a city judge must be charged by a county commissioner, for example, and then appear in that court since they couldn't rule over their own case, obviously).

In the event of the former, the citizens have to either "wait it out", teach their judge(s) to be more wise through their Executive or citizen interaction, or exert pressure through the Press to run them out.

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  • Judges, in the US at least are not "charged" by an executive such as a county commissioner,, nor are court actions appealed to an executive, This answer includes serious misunderstandings.. Apr 9 at 3:43

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