The Pennsylvania magisterial district judge who made headlines after being charged with
dismissing her own motor vehicle citations will be allowed to return to the bench, despite recommendations by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board that she be permanently removed from office.
Judge Kelly S. Ballentine, a local judge from Lancaster City, was placed on paid suspension more than a year ago after being charged by the Attorney General’s Office with illegally scraping three traffic tickets issued to her by Lancaster City police officers.
This past February, the Judicial Conduct Board filed formal charges against Ballentine, arguing that the minor court judge brought disrepute to the judiciary when she used a court computer system to dismiss the tickets that had been issued to her in the winter of 2010.
Just weeks ago, the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline granted a petition by the JCB to suspend Ballentine without pay, ruling that the unpaid suspension would be retroactive to Feb. 11.
This week, however, the CJD issued an order that ended Ballentine’s suspension on May 31, and places the jurist on probation until Dec. 31, 2014.
And while Ballentine was ordered to return the nearly $23,000 in compensation she received during the smaller, months-long suspension period, the ruling also allows her to return to the bench.
The Lancaster Intelligencer Journal reported on Wednesday that Ballentine was expected to return to her Lancaster City office on that day.
The paper quoted Lancaster County Common Pleas Court President Judge Joseph Madenspacher as saying that Ballentine was expected to take over for Senior District Judge Richard Simms, who had been hearing cases in Ballentine’s absence.
Earlier this spring, Ballentine, who began her time on the bench in 2006, pleaded guilty to three counts of tampering with public records or information, a second-degree misdemeanor, in return for prosecutors agreeing to dismiss other, more serious charges against her, which included conflict of interest and obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function.
Ballentine was ordered to pay a $1,500 fine for her crimes, records show.
The CJD’s order states that Ballentine used a medical condition as the excuse for why she dismissed the tickets.
According to the June 10 court filing, Ballentine has been a longtime sufferer of Crohn’s Disease, which often causes her to have to rush to the bathroom.
Ballentine, who said in her sentencing memorandum that she operates one of the “busiest magisterial districts in the Commonwealth,” had testified in front of the disciplinary court that her district office has only one bathroom that is not only used by herself, but also be her staff, police officers, traffic offenders, civil litigants and a host of other individuals.
Oftentimes, Ballentine would instead choose to rush to her home, which is located mere blocks from her office, to use her private bathroom when she had an emergency situation, the record shows.
It was during two of these mid-day trips home in November 2010 that Ballentine received the traffic tickets that led to her criminal charges and subsequent suspension.
“[Ballentine] testified that she ‘was having medical issues stemming from Crohn’s disease [and] on both occasions I had to run home from my office which is three blocks away and opted for the first and only convenient parking available,” the jurist had testified, according to the CJD filing.
The traffic citations Ballentine received, and which she ultimately dismissed illegally, were for parking violations, not speeding, the record shows.
Ballentine had received numerous other such violations in the past, but most of them had been paid.
Although she never explained why she failed to pay the three tickets that she ultimately dismissed, city records established that each of those tickets had become past due, unlike the others, which appeared to have been paid on time.
Medical records also verified that Ballentine had been undergoing hospitalization and treatment relating to her Crohn’s Disease at the time the three tickets went unpaid.
“So there is no mystery as to why [Ballentine] did not pay the tickets at issue here,” the CJD’s ruling states. “She was otherwise occupied. She was in the hospital. She was in pain; she had surgery. She forgot about them …”
At the same time, the disciplinary judges determined that this was not justification for Ballentine’s dismissal of her own cases.
“We don’t know all that was in [Ballentine’s] mind when she dismissed these citations on the computer but we know that one thing on her mind was dread of the publicity which would be attendant to any hearing if she had pled not guilty and sent the cases to another judge for trial,” the CJD ruling states.
The record shows that in testimony before the CJD, Ballentine answered “absolutely” when asked if she was concerned about the publicity surrounding a potential not guilty plea, which would have triggered a summary trial.
Ballentine said it wasn’t her initial intention to discharge her citations using the court’s computer system, but after speaking to a hearing officer, Ballentine realized the public could become aware of the situation.
“And for a judge to have a not guilty hearing on a traffic citation in Lancaster County, that would have been of public interest,” Ballentine had testified, the record shows.
The CJD, in justifying its decision not to remove Ballentine from the bench, cited the judge’s cooperation in the disciplinary proceedings against her, Ballentine’s “evident contrition and remorse, and her “excellent reputation” in the community.
“The offending conduct here was an isolated incident which we believe would never have happened save for the coming together of a number of events and circumstances …,” the CJD ruling states.
The CJD’s order also mandates Ballentine to report monthly to the JCB’s chief counsel or his designee to determine if the conditions of probation are being met.
The CJD rejected the JCB’s recommendations that Ballentine be removed from the bench in Lancaster and permanently barred from judicial office in the future, as well as the recommendation that she reimburse the commonwealth for the salary and benefits she received during the longer suspension period beginning in February 2012.
The CJD stated in its order that suspension and probation was appropriate in this case.
“We are convinced that this judge will not offend again,” the CJD wrote. “Neither intent to defraud nor any element of personal gain played any part in [Ballentine’s] decision to dismiss these tickets; but, rather it was [Ballentine’s] fear that her affliction would be publicized in the community which was the motivation.”
The court determined that the “severe discipline” recommended by the Judicial Conduct Board is not necessary to preserve the integrity of the judiciary in this particular instance.
Not all are pleased with the outcome of the case. Lynn Marks, the executive director of the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, told the Pennsylvania Record that Ballentine’s actions were “unacceptable,” and that while she appreciates the fact that Ballentine took responsibility for her actions, and understands that people make mistakes, “judges should be held to a higher standard because they sit in judgment of others.
“The decision to reinstate Judge Ballentine undermines the public’s confidence in both the judicial discipline system and the Pennsylvania judiciary as a whole,” Marks wrote in an email. “Quite frankly, Pennsylvanians should be disappointed in a system that has chosen to protect judges rather than everyday citizens.”