Two Douglas County district judges are facing ethics complaints over their interventions in separate DUI cases, one involving an acquaintance, the other a daughter.
District Judge Greg Schatz has a hearing next week over his involvement in the felony drunken driving case of an acquaintance, Omaha attorney Michael Davlin.
Terms of that ethics complaint have not been made public, but two people familiar with the case told The World-Herald that Schatz called a jail and, against protocol, ordered the attorney released.
District Judge Michael Coffey had his own ethics hearing in July after repeatedly intervening in his adult daughter's DUI case.
Jeffre Cheuvront, retired Lancaster County district judge, is presiding over each case and will make a recommendation to the Nebraska Supreme Court on whether each judge should be disciplined. Results can range from no action to a public reprimand, suspension or, in extremely rare cases, removal from the bench.
The 10-member Judicial Qualifications Commission — made up of Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican, attorneys and citizens — accused the judges of violating an ethical code that essentially forbids judges from using their position to influence the outcome of cases outside their courtrooms.
The allegations in each case:
About 10 p.m. Aug. 6, 2012, Davlin drove drunk and hit a tree just off 114th Street, south of West Center Road. Police arrested him and booked him on suspicion of third-offense felony DUI. Davlin's blood-alcohol content was .247 percent, three times the legal limit of .08.
Two people familiar with the situation said Davlin made a jailhouse phone call to the woman he was dating, Leslie Douglas, clerk of the Douglas County Court. Douglas made some phone calls, and Schatz eventually called the jail.
The judge reportedly told jailers to release Davlin on his own recognizance.
Shortly after his 2006 election, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declared an end to the occasional practice of judges calling in favors for certain friends in jail. Under Kleine's policy, jailed defendants are supposed to remain there until their first court appearance, typically a day or two.
Kleine has been subpoenaed to testify at Schatz's hearing. He declined to comment this week, as did Schatz.
People close to Schatz say he quickly acknowledged that he made a mistake. District judges typically have no involvement in initial bail determinations.
Douglas, the court clerk, reportedly was disciplined, though terms were not disclosed. She also declined to comment.
After Davlin went through treatment, Douglas County prosecutors reduced his charge to misdemeanor third-offense DUI. Davlin was sentenced to 30 days in jail and two years of probation.
Coffey and his attorney, Terence Boyle of Denver, argue that the allegations against the judge stem largely from personal disputes between the judge and his ex-wife, Stacy Ryan. Ryan filed the original complaint against Coffey over the judge's involvement in their daughter's DUI case.
However, the commission and its special counsel, Robert Bartle of Lincoln, assert that the complaint was filed based on the facts of the case, not the complainant. Bartle argues that Coffey violated his ethical code by practicing law, using his office to advance his interests and failing to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Here are the allegations against the judge and his response to each:
» March 11, 2011: A Douglas County judge placed Coffey's daughter, Megan, 23 at the time, on probation for her second DUI. Her one year of probation included a provision precluding her from driving.
» March 29, 2011: Megan Coffey drove seven blocks to her father's home for dinner. Judge Coffey said he immediately told his daughter she wasn't supposed to be driving. After dinner, he followed her to her home while she drove in a separate vehicle.
Ryan accused Coffey of allowing their daughter to violate probation. Coffey's attorney argued that Coffey was merely taking corrective action to ensure that his daughter didn't drive elsewhere.
“Following Megan home did not make Judge Coffey unworthy of trust and confidence (as a judge),” Boyle argued. “At worst, it was a decision, made in a private family setting, that some might question with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.”
» July 23, 2011: Two Douglas County probation officers went to Judge Coffey's lake house in the Omaha area, searched it and discovered that Megan Coffey “had been drinking alcohol in violation of her probation.” The judge was not present at the house on that Saturday night.
» July 26, 2011: The judge contacted Ron Broich, the head of Douglas County probation, and expressed concern that his house had been searched without a warrant, that his daughter was being supervised more strictly than others and that a probation officer had “tried to intimidate her.” When Broich told the judge the probation officer normally didn't act that way, Coffey responded: “Are you saying Megan is lying?”
Bartle alleged that Coffey repeatedly contacted probation officials and used his status as a judge to advance his daughter's interests. In response, Boyle wrote: “Judge Coffey did not threaten or attempt to intimidate Mr. Broich or any other probation official. He expressed concern over the improper, warrantless search of his own (not Megan's) home.”
» Nov. 15, 2011: Judge Coffey learned that his ex-wife would be obtaining alcohol test results from their daughter's probation file. Coffey, in turn, called his daughter's probation officer and supervisors, including Nebraska's chief probation officer, and objected to the release of the information.
Bartle, the special counsel, argued that Judge Coffey was essentially practicing law by citing statutes against releasing his daughter's information. Bartle argued that Megan Coffey was an adult and that her attorney, not her father, should have been representing her.
Boyle countered that Judge Coffey contacted the supervisors only after he was referred to them by his daughter's probation officer. “He expressed concern over the improper release of Megan's confidential records to Ms. Ryan,” Boyle wrote.
Judge Coffey also appeared at a probation review hearing in Judge Edna Atkins' courtroom. During that hearing, his ex-wife alleged that he had permitted their daughter to violate probation by, among other things, allowing her to drive home in March 2011. At that, Coffey asked to be heard in court.
“I just want to get on the record that I disagree with a lot of the comments that have been made by her mother. ... I have not done anything which I believe has allowed her to violate her probation. I understand how serious it is, and we've had numerous discussions about it. I just wanted the court to know that. That's all.”
In response to the ethics complaint, Boyle wrote that Coffey was acting “as a concerned parent, nothing more.”
“Judge Coffey ... did not practice law,” Boyle wrote. “He was there as a father, with his daughter, as any father would want to be.”