Judge John M. Steensland JR

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On December 14, 2010, the Alabama Judicial Inquiry
Commission (“JIC”) filed a complaint with the Alabama Court of
the Judiciary charging M. John Steensland, Jr. , with
violating the Canons of Judicial Ethics (“the Canons”), while
presiding over court proceedings in his capacity as a district
judge in Houston County. Based on the testimony presented at
trial, this Court hereby finds as follows:
On January 5, 2010, Judge Steensland held a docket to
hear traffic cases. Stacie R. had received a ticket for
simple speeding and was the first person to appear before
Judge steens land that day. She entered a plea of “not guilty”
and requested a trial on the speeding charge. Evidence was
then presented in her case, after which Judge Steensland found
MS. R. guilty and sentenced her to ten days in Jail. Ms. R.
testified before . this court that, after Judge Steensland
pronounced sentence, she was handcuffed and was made to sit in
a chair along the wall toward the front of the courtroom.
Ms. R. testified that after she was handcuffed she
explained to Judge Steensland that she was a veteran of the
Iraq war, that she had been injured while serving in Iraq, and
that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Because of her injuries and her disorder, Ms. R. explained,
she could not endure being handcuffed. Nonetheless, she said,
she remained in handcuffs throughout the approximately two
hours of that court session. During that time, Ms. R.
testified, she was crying and shaking, and, at one point, it
appeared as though she was about to hyperventilate. Ms. R.
stated that, in an effort to calm her, courtroom personnel
told her that Judge Steensland would release her at the end of
the docket and that she would not actually be going to jail.
According to testimony from a number of witnesses, as
other defendants came forward at that session of court to
enter their pleas in traffic cases, JudgeSteensland would ask
whether they wanted to plead guilty or “eI?-d up” like Ms. R.
No other defendant requested a trial during the traffic-case
docket that day. At the end of the docket, Judge Steensland
set aside Ms. R. ‘s sentence and ordered her to pay a fine of
$50 plus costs.
On the same day Ms. R. was in. Judge Steensland’s
·courtroom~ Julie M. I whose . teenage son had received a ti.cket”
for speeding and a ticket for failing to have proof of
automobile insurance, accompanied her son to court. They
attended the session of court ?uring which Ms. R. was
handcuffed and made to sit at the front of the courtroom. Ms.
M. testified that, throughout the court session, Judge
Steens land appeared to be angry and was yelling and cursing
from the bench. Her son had intended to seek youthfuloffender
status, but, Ms. M. said, in light of Judge
Steensland’s demeanor and his treatment of Ms. R., her son
chose to plead guilty instead. Ms. M. testified that she told
Judge Steens land that her son was pleading guilty only because
Judge Steens land was “too angry.” Judge Steens land then
called th~ attention of the people in the courtroom to her son
because, Ms. M. said, Judge Steensland said that her son was
. doing the IIsmartll thing by pleading guilty.
Another litigant testified that, in November 2009, she
appe~red before Judge Steensland regarding a domestic
complaint she had filed against her husband. That litigant
testified that she suffered from a medical disorder that
affected her short-term memory. When she was unable to
remember details of the complaint she had filed against her
husband, ‘ she said, Judge Steensland became angry and told her
that she was going to go to jail. Al though she was not
charged with an offense, that litigant was placed in handcuffs
and was taken to jail. Because she had not been charged, no
bond had been set, and she spent the night in jail. She was
not released until late in the afternoon the following day.
That same day in November 2009, Cynthia M. appeared
before Judge Steensland in a matter involving her daughter,
which had arisen approximately two years earlier. Ms. M.
testified that she believed that she and her daughter were
going to court for a hearing on whether her daughter was to
lose her pretrial-diversion status. Instead, .when they
appeared before Judge Steensland, they learned that there was
to be a.trial.
Ms. M. testified that before her daughter’s. case was
called for trial, Judge Steensland wa~ yelling and cursing
from.the bench and that she had seen a litigant handcuffed and
ordered to j ail because she was unable to remember some
details of her case. Ms. M. stated that she was terrified,
because, like the previous litigant, she suffered from a
medical condition that affected her memory. W hen her
daughter’s case was called, Ms. M . said, she told Judge
·Steensland that she would have to go to j air because she could’
not remember everything that had occurred. According to Ms.
M., Judge Steensland told her that she “needed to get her damn
memory back.” He then told Ms. M.’ s daughter that she had to
plead guilty to keep her mother from going to jail. Ms. M.,
who stated that she was crying while she was before Judge
Steensland, testified that she told Judge Steensland that she
did not believe her daughter should’ have to plead guilty
because she could not remember what had happened. She said
that Judge Steensland then ordered her to jail and had her
handcuffed. Although she was held in the jail overnight, Ms.
M. said, she was not charged and no bond was set. She stated
that’ her husband hired an attorney and that the next day
another judge released her from jail after finding that no
arrest warrant had been issued for her.
This court finds that in addition to the specific
incidents set forth above, Judge Steensland often ,used,
profanity, and yelled at litigants from the bench. In his
capacity as a district’judge, Judge Steensland would demean,
mock, and humiliate the litigants, both defendants and
complaining witnesses who appeared before him, especially when
the litigants were appearing pro se. On a number, of
occasions, Judge Steensland asked victims d£ domestic abuse
what they had done to cause the abuse. Judge Steensland also
made a practice of sentencing to jail defendants who appeared
before him early in the docket and who pleaded “not guilty”
and requested a trial. The sentences in those cases were
imposed in bad faith in an effort to discourage other
defendants from seeking a trial. Judge Steensland’s ~onduct
is without reasonable ~xcus~ or justification.
On the basis of the evidence presented, not all of which
is set out herein, this court finds that the JIC proved by
clear and convincing evidence that Judge Steens land is guilty
of violating the following Canons of JUdicial Ethics:
• Canon I, by failing to observe high standards of
conduct that would preserv~ the integrity and independence of
the judiciary;
• Canon 2, by failing to avoid impropriety and the
appearance of impropriety in all of his acti vi ties,
specifically, by failing to respect and to comply with the
law, and by failing to conduct himself at all times in a
manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and
impartiality of the judiciary (Canon 2A) and by failing to
avoid conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice,
thereby bringing the judicial office into disrepute, and by
. failing to maintain the decorum and temperance befitting his
office(Canon 2B) ; and
• Canon 3, by failing to perform the duties of his
office impartially, specifically by failing to be faithful to
the law (Canon 3A(1)), by failing to maintain order and
decorum in the proceedings before him (Canon 3A (2) ) , by
failing to be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants
and others with whom he dealt in his official capacity (Canon
3A (3) ), and by failing to accord to every person who is
legally interested in a proceeding the full right to be heard
according to law (Canon 3A(4)).
This court notes that Judge Steensland voluntarily
retired on May 7, 2010 i approximately 15 months into his most
recent six-year term.
Based on the findings of this court. after a thorough
consideration of all the evidence and taking into
consideration the limitations on the ability of this court to
sanction Judge Steensland in this matter it is hereby ordered
and adjudged as follows:
That Judge Steens land be publicly censured by the
publication of this order of final judgment and public censure
in a newspaper of general circulation in Houston County. This
court also prohibits M. John Steensland,Jr., from ever
serving as a judge in any case in any court in Alabama or from
exercising any judicial authority in any manner whether now or
in the future.
[Signatures appear on following page.]
Done this .~ day of May, 2011.

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