When Darryl Broaddus stood before Judge Sandra McLaughlin last summer for his arraignment on drug charges, he already had one strike against him. That strike: a Barack Obama t-shirt.
“He’s lucky to get out of here alive,” McLaughlin said within earshot of Broaddus and a full courtroom. Twice, she stated that the shirt was “not helping” his cause.
“Did you see his t-shirt? Barack Obama, ‘Let’s Do It Again.’ That was a double whammy,” she said, according to video footage of the courtroom.
This wasn’t the only time in the last year that McLaughlin has made comments that defendants or attorneys found inappropriate.
McLaughlin, a Jefferson County district court judge, is the lowest-rated judge in the county by a wide margin, according to a recently released survey by the Louisville Bar Association. A review of more than a dozen cases highlights the reasons that McLaughlin may not be held in high regard in the legal community.
For example, last October, McLaughlin accused defendant Wesley Taylor of being “up here selling dope to little children.” That assertion -- made during Taylor’s arraignment on a drug possession charge -- was false; he was not accused of selling drugs to anyone.
When burglary and drug defendant Ronnie Gravel appeared in court a week later, McLaughlin said sarcastically: “He still needs to burglarize so he can maintain his drug habit. So everyone feels good and safe with him out in the public.”
Not only had Gravel not been convicted of either charge, the case was later dismissed.
In at least four other cases, McLaughlin denied defendants the right to a public defender. Furthermore, a procedural mistake she made this summer caused a conviction to be set aside because she had violated the defendant’s due-process rights.
Early in June, the Louisville Bar Association released its 2014 judicial evaluations. For the second time in a row, McLaughlin was by far the lowest-rated and most-criticized judge.
McLaughlin strongly disputes these unfavorable critiques.
“I think I do a really good job,” she said in an interview with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. “I show up on time and I work hard.”
McLaughlin didn't challenge the authenticity of the comments she made in the Broaddus, Taylor, Gravel and other cases, but nevertheless insisted: “Everyone in my court is treated fairly and respectfully.”
McLaughlin said it’s not uncommon for judges to make extrajudicial comments in court. Her only explanation for the controversial remarks was that “it gets frustrating after 200 cases a day.”
The LBA survey of 120 attorneys found just a 26 percent general satisfaction rating for McLaughlin. That’s down from the 41 percent satisfaction rating she received in the 2011 bar association poll, and it’s 28 percentage points lower than the next-lowest rating in the recently released poll.
Only one district court judge has been ranked lower than 26 percent since the Bar Association began its evaluations in 1979.
But a review by KyCIR of the Jefferson County district court judges’ career histories shows that the majority have experience as prosecutors.
McLaughlin also claimed that most members of the Bar Association -- the group that conducted the survey -- were originally defense attorneys.
“They don’t support my campaign,” she said. “They just declared war on a tough judge.”
However, Scott Furkin, executive director of the Louisville Bar Association, said “membership is open to all attorneys in good standing with the state bar association.”
The association has “a good cross-section of both prosecutors and defense attorneys,” he added.
McLaughlin became a district court judge in 2011. Prior to that, she was an assistant in the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office for five years. She was fired in 2004 for grabbing and berating a juror after an acquittal in a case she had prosecuted, according to media reports.
Over the course of her judgeship, McLaughlin and the public defender’s office have often found themselves at odds concerning legal issues and her treatment of indigent defendants.
For example, McLaughlin told KyCIR that she denies the appointment of public defenders in most minor shoplifting cases and some other misdemeanor cases because “the resources in the public defender’s office are very scarce.”
But Robert Lawson, a law professor and former dean of the College of Law at the University of Kentucky, said McLaughlin should not allow the alleged scarcity of resources to affect whether or not lawyers are appointed in cases where jail time is a possibility.
“I'm assuming sooner rather than later that exercise of discretion will be challenged,” he said. “But if you've got someone who's indigent—are they likely to challenge that kind of ruling themselves? They wouldn't know to, they wouldn't have the resources to do it.”
McLaughlin is running for re-election in November, and one of her campaign pamphlets includes the misleading claim that she is “unanimously endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police.” In fact, Mike Hettich of the Deputy Sheriff’s FOP Lodge 25 said McLaughlin’s opponent, Matthew Eckert, received that endorsement.
McLaughlin said she printed the pamphlet expecting to be supported by the FOP after it endorsed her in the 2011 race. When KyCIR questioned her about the misleading flyers, she claimed she had taken them out of circulation after the endorsement went to Eckert in early April.
But KyCIR found that not to be the case. Early in June, two months after the endorsement, a KyCIR reporter went to McLaughlin’s husband’s medical office and found a stack of the flyers containing the inaccurate claim.
Eckert, her election opponent, was a district court judge for 25 years before retiring in 2009. He said in an interview that he is abandoning retirement to run again because several people in the legal community asked him to challenge McLaughlin.
“One would think that if it were solely a matter of her being tough on crime, those people who used to be prosecutors would rate her highly, and yet that does not seem to be the case,” Eckert said.
A review of McLaughlin’s record found additional cases in which her decisions were challenged or overturned.
In one case, McLaughlin’s colleague, District Judge David Holton, reversed her decision to deny appointment of a public defender to a woman accused of misdemeanor shoplifting. The woman was living on disability benefits, according to court records.
“In my judgment, it doesn’t matter whether you’re charged with a felony or misdemeanor, those aren’t part of the criteria when you determine whether a public defender should be appointed,” Holton told KyCIR. “What matters to me is the ability of the defendant to hire counsel.”
In another instance, defendant Shawn Litteral appeared in front of McLaughlin without an attorney in May on a $7 shoplifting charge. McLaughlin was required by Kentucky law to ask Litteral specific questions to gauge his ability for self-representation. However, she asked none of those questions, proceeded with the trial, declared Litteral guilty and sentenced him to serve 30 days in jail.
Public defender Jon Scheib happened to be in the courtroom. He protested, alleging that Litteral had not had a fair trial because McLaughlin failed to inform him of his right to an attorney and to ensure his competency in court. The prosecution later agreed that the court should set Litteral’s conviction aside. McLaughlin consented.
“The judge did not advise the defendant of all of the aspects of not being represented by counsel, a deficiency in the case that could be challenged further down the road,” said Bill Patteson, spokesman for Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell.
“Typically it is the judge’s responsibility to give that information to the defendant.”
McLaughlin has also made other procedural missteps.
For example, Ralph Weaver had not yet been appointed legal counsel during his arraignment on drunken-driving and marijuana possession charges last year. When the prosecutor asked him if he had any prior DUIs in Indiana, Weaver replied that he did, though none were listed on his record.
At this point, McLaughlin increased Weaver’s charge to second-offense DUI, which carries stiffer penalties.
Jay Lambert, a supervisor at the Louisville Metro Public Defender’s office, said McLaughlin never should have increased the charge in the first place.
“In no circumstance can a prosecutor or judge interrogate a defendant regarding any facts of his case, much less facts that they know are likely to incriminate him, without advising him of his right to remain silent and his right to counsel,” he said.
"It was wrong for the prosecutor to ask the question in the first place, the judge shouldn’t have permitted it, and the judge shouldn't have allowed the defendant to answer it."
The county attorney’s office later amended the charge back to first-offense drunken driving, and Weaver pleaded guilty to it.
In the same hearing where she increased Weaver’s DUI charge, McLaughlin also said, according to a recording of the proceeding: “You know what he’s doing? He’s growing marijuana over in Indiana and selling it.”
But Weaver’s marijuana possession charge was later dismissed and there was no allegation in the case that he was selling drugs.
“How can you be standing in front of a judge who acts like that and says those things, and think you're going to get some kind of impartial justice?” Lambert said.
Zoe Schaver is an intern with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Staff Reporter R.G. Dunlop contributed to this article.