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MS judge must pay $5,400 for helping owner evict tenant

JACKSON (AP) — A Mississippi judge must pay $5,400 for improperly intervening in a landlord-tenant dispute by encouraging the property owner to seek the maximum penalty and evict a woman whose rent check bounced.

The Mississippi Supreme Court publicly reprimanded Montgomery County Justice Court Judge Keith Stokes Roberts and ordered him to pay a $3,000 fine and $2,400 in court costs. The justices said he effectively lawyered from the bench and didn’t give the tenant a chance to fight his decision.

They said Roberts improperly intervened in landlord Rebecca Herring’s lawsuit, which accused Marci Gastineau of bouncing a $450 rent check, by advising her to increase the amount she sought from $546.50 to $3,564. Roberts then granted that larger judgment, and after suggesting that Herring seek an eviction order, granted that as well.

Gastineau said her paycheck was garnished, she lost her car and had to file for bankruptcy because of the judge’s actions.

The case reached the state’s highest court after an investigation by the Commission on Judicial Performance, which received an anonymous tip.

The justices’ 5-4 decision last week does not indicate that Gastineau will get any of the money.

“Clear and convincing evidence exists that Judge Roberts gave Herring legal advice,” Associate Justice Leslie King wrote. “Several witnesses, including Judge Roberts himself, indicated that he strongly and inappropriately suggested that Herring amend her complaint up to the jurisdictional monetary limit, although the record indicates that no proof of damages in that amount was presented.”

Dissenting justices wrote that the majority is being too hard on Roberts.

“I disagree with the plurality’s finding that Judge Roberts gave legal advice; and this court’s definition of ‘bad faith’ in the context of judicial performance complaints requires nothing more than a finding that the judge ‘should have known’ better,” presiding Justice Jess Dickinson wrote.

Dickinson called that an “astonishingly weak standard.” He wrote that Herring had presented evidence that she had suffered more than $450 in harm, and that she willingly changed her complaint.

Roberts was elected in 2005. The commission had previously dismissed three informal complaints against him, cautioning the judge each time. Many justice court judges are not lawyers, and Roberts is not listed as a lawyer in the state bar directory.