CHARLESTON -- The state Judicial Investigation Commission has admonished an Eastern Panhandle judge running for the state Supreme Court for letting his law clerk preside over two hearings.
The panel ruled that Circuit Judge John C. Yoder committed misconduct but it didn't recommend formal charges. In its public admonishment, the JIC says Yoder neglected his duty May 13 when he allowed two name-change hearings to be handled by his law clerk in Morgan County. Yoder attended a legislative forum in Martinsburg at the time.
The commission also said Yoder failed to adhere to responsibilities to maintain and enforce high standards of conduct and failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety, according to the admonishment.
"The admonishment pretty much says it all," said Steve Canterbury, state Supreme Court administrator. "It's clear, and the frustrations on the part of the Judicial Investigation Commission ring true.
"I'm disappointed that a judge elected would choose not to the job to which he was elected."
Yoder said he signed orders permitting the name changes. But he says he should have handled the cases differently because there may have been a misunderstanding about the extent of his involvement.
In an interview last week with the Herald-Mail newspaper of Hagerstown, Md., Yoder said he accepted the admonishment and would not contest it.
"I feel I should have handled it differently, because any time the public misunderstands something that is going on it may create a perception that it's not been handled right," Yoder told the Herald-Mail. "And so, I certainly would never handle it the same way again because I think people did not understand what was going on, and they were not aware to what extent I was involved in the process."
Yoder told the paper that before the hearings he signed orders permitting the name changes for a 16-year-old boy and another man after reviewing petitions. Yoder said his law clerk made no decisions regarding either petition and was directed to ask both petitioners to verify everything in the respective petitions was true and correct, questions that he would have asked. Yoder also said he told his clerk to contact him if any questions concerning the petitions were raised or if anyone appeared in court to contest the name changes.
There were no objections, but the JIC admonishment questions why Yoder signed the name change for the teenage boy when he was not present for the hearing to verify that it was in the child's best interest.
Yoder responded to the commission in a four-page response that his law clerk texted him just before the hearing to tell him the boy was absent because he was hospitalized. The commission said Yoder could have rescheduled the hearing, but Yoder said he was trying to accommodate the public and not delay the individuals' request.