Panel urges removal of St. Louis trial judge

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri judicial commission has recommended the removal of a St. Louis judge who has drawn broad criticism for some practices, including allowing clerks to perform some of her duties.

An attorney for Associate Circuit Judge Barbara Peebles disputed the commission’s findings and will fight the recommendations to the Missouri Supreme Court, which will decide the judge’s fate, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported ( ).

A 25-page report filed Thursday by Missouri’s Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline contains allegations that Peebles abdicated her judicial responsibilities to her clerks, frequently showed up late and removed and destroyed a court document, then tried to cover it up.

The commission found Peebles guilty on five counts and not guilty on four counts. Five members of the commission recommended her removal. The sixth recommended a six-month suspension.

Severe discipline of judges is rare. In four formal disciplinary hearings and two disability hearings held by the commission since July 1998, one complaint was ultimately dismissed, three judges were given formal reprimands or unpaid suspensions and two judges retired on disability. No judge has been removed.

Paul D’Agrosa, Peebles’ lawyer, said he would appeal and ask for oral arguments in front of the state Supreme Court, which would not happen for at least two months. She will be suspended without pay until that time.

“While we respect the commission’s findings, we don’t agree,” D’Agrosa said. “We intend to appeal to the Supreme Court. We do not nor have we ever believed that any of the conduct warrants removal. And we still don’t believe there was misconduct other than that she’s already admitted to ... publicly commenting on a pending case.”

The commission’s investigation was sparked by a Post-Dispatch article last Dec. 18 revealing that one of Peebles’ clerks, Whitney Tyler, handled at least 350 cases while the judge took a two-week October vacation in China followed by a stint at a judicial college.

In its report, the commission found that Tyler — which it said was also Peebles’ friend and hair stylist — was regularly allowed to handle the first “docket call” of the day, announcing which cases would be dismissed or continued or that arrest warrants would be issued.

Frequently, Peebles arrived later and was not even in the building when Tyler was handling the cases, although she authorized Tyler’s actions, the commission said. The long delays that kept lawyers, witnesses, police, defendants and their relatives waiting became “a joke” among lawyers, one public defender told the commission in a hearing last month.

On several occasions, Tyler used Peebles’ signature stamp to dismiss cases, the commission said.

The Post-Dispatch also revealed that a lawyer’s memo of complaint has disappeared from a court file. The commission said Peebles became “furious,” tore the memo from a file and threw it away.

When Peebles discovered that the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office was investigating the disappearance of a court document, she told Tyler, “This is something we’re going to keep between us. It’s something we’re going to take to our graves,” the report says.

She later advised Tyler against taking a polygraph test and suggested she get a lawyer.

Peebles later called Assistant Circuit Attorney Rachel Smith, who taped the call, and admitted removing the document. She claimed it was not a motion but an order or “not a true order,” but both Smith and the commission said Peebles was not truthful or credible.