A family court judge abruptly stopped a hearing between a divorced couple in a dispute over the property they used to share, asked the ex-husband for his address, ordered everybody to meet at his house in 10 minutes and went inside to collect photos, yearbooks, DVDs, recipes, a chainsaw and a hotly-contested umbrella stand.
Everyone agrees to the basic, but unusual, set of events.
West Virginia’s Supreme Court was asked to settle what the punishment should be for Family Court Judge Louise Goldston, who has presided in Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming counties since 1994 with no discipline issues up to now.
Justices decided, in a filing this week, that Goldston should be subject to a public censure and a $1,000 fine.
The rebuke is more stern than the admonishment she could have faced. The fine is a little less than the $5,000 she was initially asked to pay.
“An admonishment is insufficient to address the seriousness of Judge Goldston’s conduct and the impact such violations have on the public’s confidence in the judiciary,” wrote Justice Tim Armstead for the Supreme Court.
“We believe that the imposition of a censure, rather than an admonishment, adequately recognizes the seriousness of Judge Goldston’s conduct. Such sanction, coupled with the $1,000 fine will fulfill the disciplinary goals of preserving and enhancing the public’s confidence in the ‘honor, integrity, dignity, and efficiency of the members of the judiciary and the system of justice.'”
As the circumstances were reviewed, Goldston acknowledged that she had a 20-year practice of going to parties’ homes to determine if disputed marital property was present or to supervise the transfer of belongings. But those searches were requested by counsel and were performed without objection.
The situation was different March 4, 2020, when a woman claimed her ex-husband had damaged property they had shared and refused to turn over items of sentimental value that were rightfully hers.
During the ex-wife’s testimony, Goldston asked the husband for his address. She stopped the hearing and ordered everyone to meet up at the home in 10 minutes. The man wasn’t told why everyone was going to his home or offered an opportunity to object.
Once everyone got to the home, the ex-husband objected, arguing that the judge was taking on the role of witness, contending that a search warrant would be needed, and attempting to record events on his cell phone.
Goldston, according to the court record, told the man he would be arrested by the bailiff if he continued to object.
So everyone, including the bailiff, went into the home to collect the items. When an argument broke out over the umbrella stand, the judge awarded it to the ex-wife.
The parties returned to the courtroom, and Judge Goldston compiled a list of what items had been recovered and what items remained unaccounted.
A complaint was filed about the series of events March 11 with the state Judicial Investigation Commission, which delves into the conduct of judges.
Judge Goldston responded that her actions were intended to resolve the dispute about the items before they were damaged. “I guess it comes down to me thinking if we don’t go they’re not going to get it back,” the judge told investigators.
The judge compared the trip to the house to a “jury view,” in which jurors go off site to observe evidence that can’t be presented in the courtroom.
Initially, the judge signed an agreement with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel to be censured and fined $5,000.
That resolution got more complicated, though, when the case went to the next step.
A member of the Judicial Hearing Board, which consists of a panel of judges, questioned whether the judge was within her authority to perform a view of the disputed property. The Judicial Hearing Board wound up settling on a lesser punishment for the judge, an admonishment and a $1,000 fine.
The state Supreme Court, then, was asked to review whether that resolution was appropriate. Justice John Hutchison, a former circuit judge in the area where Goldston serves, recused himself. Judge Jennifer Dent sat in on the case.
Justices concluded that when Goldston went to the ex-husband’s home it was not just a viewing but a more active search, crossing the line where her authority should have ended. “On the contrary,” the justices concluded, “the record is clear that Judge Goldston went to the property to locate things, not simply to observe them.”
“Even setting aside the inappropriateness of the search, Judge Goldston went about the search in a highhanded and procedurally flawed manner,” the Supreme Court concluded.
“Instead of receiving both sides’ testimony and evidence and rendering a decision, she interrupted the ex-wife’s testimony and directed the parties to meet her at the ex-husband’s residence, affording the ex-husband no explanation and no opportunity to object until she arrived at the scene.”