Former appellate judge: Sea Pines officials right to question judge's actions

tbarton@islandpacket.comJune 4, 2012 

Sea Pines officials were right to question a local judge's actions, even though allegations about her had been dismissed by a state commission, a former appellate judge testified Monday.

Jurors heard from William Howard as an expert witness on judicial ethics and conduct, despite objections from the attorney for Hilton Head Island Municipal Court Judge Maureen Coffey, whose defamation lawsuit continues this week in the Beaufort County Courthouse.

Howard, now an attorney with Young Clement Rivers LLP in Charleston, served on the S.C. Court of Appeals from 1996 to 2004. Before that, he was a Circuit Court judge and served on the state's Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Coffey has accused the Sea Pines' property owners association, Community Services Associates, and its security chief, George Breed, with harassing and defaming her and her family as authorities investigated a series of break-ins in 2004 and 2008, in which her adopted brother was a suspect.

Breed has stood by his belief that Coffey "hindered and interfered" with a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office investigation of Otis Coffey. Breed's suspicions led him to file a judicial complaint against Maureen Coffey that later was dismissed.

In his letter to the S.C. Commission on Judicial Conduct, Breed alleged Judge Coffey is unable to be neutral in cases involving Sea Pines and showed a pattern of "prejudicial" conduct.

In the complaint, Breed refers to a May 2008 incident in which a newly hired Sea Pines security officer on patrol saw Judge Coffey and introduced himself, unaware of who she is. The officer testified Monday that Maureen Coffey told him she was a town judge and that Sea Pines security should quit harassing her family.

Breed also referred to a 2004 conversation Judge Coffey had with an investigator from the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office. Coffey was asked if her brother would submit to a polygraph test. He refused. Coffey told the investigator she told her brother, "It doesn't look good if you're in my jurisdiction and a suspect in a crime" and directed her brother to move to Tybee Island, Ga., to work in a restaurant, according to testimony from her deposition.

Howard testified that Judge Coffey's actions gave the appearance of inhibiting an investigation in which her brother was a suspect and put herself in an "adversarial relationship," forcing her to recuse herself from Sea Pines cases.

South Carolina's Code of Judicial Conduct says judges should not allow family relationships to compromise their judgment or neutrality, or lend the prestige of the office to advance their own interests or other private interests. It also states that judges' "extra-judicial activities" should not cast reasonable doubt on their ability to be impartial or interfere with their judicial duties.

"That's crossing a line," Howard testified. "For her to put herself in that position and say, 'I'm the judge. You've got to stop harassing my (family member)' ... despite what she intended, (her actions) gave the appearance of impropriety that undermines the judicial process."

Coffey's attorney, Robert Mathison, argued unsuccessfully that Howard was not qualified as an expert. Mathison also argued Howard's testimony conflicts with the determination by the Commission on Judicial Conduct, as well as testimony from a sheriff's detective that Maureen Coffey did not impair or impede the investigation.

The commission determined there was insufficient evidence to file charges against Judge Coffey or investigate Breed's claim further, leading them to dismiss the complaint.

"That doesn't alleviate the fact she shouldn't have done it," Howard testified.

CSA attorney Andrew Halio argued that Coffey's lawsuit should be tossed out because S.C. Appellate Court rules prohibit judges from filing civil lawsuits against those who lodge complaints against them.

Coffey said she believes she still has a right under the law to sue for defamation and damages, saying Breed and CSA tarnished her reputation by sharing the judicial complaint with town officials and others in Sea Pines. Judicial complaints against judges are confidential unless disciplinary action is taken.

The trial resumes today.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

Related content:

Breed denies directing Sea Pines officer to lie, stands behind complaint: June 1, 2012

Sea Pines security officers cast doubt on former co-worker's testimony: May 31, 2012

Former Sea Pines officer testifies security chief ordered him to lie: May 30, 2012

Hilton Head judge's defamation suit moves to trial: May 19, 2012

Sea Pines property owners association responds to Judge Coffey's lawsuit: Dec. 26, 2008

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