Bethel judge could be removed from bench

by Angela Denning-Barnes on April 4, 2012

For the first time in Alaska history, there is a recommendation to permanently remove a judge from the bench. The Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct is recommending the Alaska Supreme Court remove Bethel District Court Judge Dennis Cummings.

The commission could have responded in several ways when considering the latest allegations against Cummings. If he was found guilty, disciplinary actions ranged from a public reprimand to suspension to removal. However, the commission’s hearing, held March 16, brought a unanimous recommendation for the most severe sanction.

The commission found that Cummings told a prosecutor twice off-record to look at an opinion that would help his case. Speaking with one side of a trial off-record is considered ex-parte communications and is against Alaska’s Judicial Code.

It wasn’t the first time Cummings was found guilty of it. In 2009, he was found to have passed notes in court to the prosecution. For that, the Alaska Supreme Court suspended him from the bench for 3 months without pay which had been the commission’s recommendation.

The outcome of the recommendation is still unknown as Cummings is set to retire this month. The recommendation was sent to the Alaska Supreme Court Tuesday (April 3), which has allowed it to become public.

It’s not known how long the court will take to make a final decision, but Greenstein says it shouldn’t be long.

Marla Greenstein, the commission’s Executive Director said, “the court typically considers these types of filings on a fairly expedited basis.”

The timing ultimately will hinder on whether the court wants to re-do the hearing process or go with the information the Commission has gathered, which is the usual case.

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