Judge suspended for opioid case comments, sexual allegations

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A judicial oversight panel has suspended a Tennessee judge for the rest of his term, citing two very different types of indiscretion in handling cases.

In one, his out-of-court comments were deemed improper enough to void a prominent ruling he made against an opioid company. In the other, a judicial oversight panel found he had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a married woman with an adoption case before him.

The unusual two-count suspension came down from the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct, which this week found that Judge Jonathan Lee Young had mishandled both cases. An appeals court disqualified him from the opioid case, voiding his default judgment that would have sent the case directly to trial over how much to award the plaintiffs in damages. In the other case, he didn’t recuse himself and ruled that the husband could adopt one of his wife’s children.

Young’s 30-day suspension begins Tuesday and his term ends Aug. 31 after losing his Republican primary election in May. The judicial board will hand over the case to Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility, which oversees attorneys, for possible further action.

A voicemail left with Young’s office seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Penny White, a University of Tennessee law school professor who specializes in judicial ethics, said the case illustrates that “a judge is a judge 24-7.”

“Fortunately, it’s rare for an investigation of a judge to get this far, and it’s certainly rare to have this serious of allegations with regard to the sexual misconduct, and it’s certainly rare to have discipline the result of which is you don’t get to serve out your term of office,” White said.

Since 2014, Young has served on the bench in the 13th Judicial District, which includes Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties.

In the case various local governments filed against Endo Pharmaceuticals, Young told Law360 in February that it was the “the worst case of document hiding” he had ever run into, likening it to a John Grisham movie.

His comments came after he made an oral default judgment ruling against Endo, but before he issued a written decision later that month. In April, the Tennessee Court of Appeals removed him from the case and overturned the order, noting the judge’s further commentary about the case on a Facebook page partly devoted to his reelection.

The judicial conduct board said Young then posted more on social media and did more media interviews about the case after the appellate ruling. According to the board, Young wrote to the board in May that he had a constitutional right to his speech to news outlets and on social media.

Young’s disqualification resulted in a different outcome than a similar lawsuit by other Tennessee local governments. There, another judge likewise found Endo was liable without holding a civil trial, ruling that there was a “coordinated strategy” by the company and its attorneys to delay proceedings, deprive plaintiffs of information and interfere with the administration of justice. The company settled that case for $35 million to prevent heading to a jury trial over the damage.

In the other infraction cited against Young, the board wrote about claims that Young initiated communications with a woman in an adoption case filed in his court in March, in which he requested explicit photos and then met with her multiple times outside of court, including at a hotel where they had sex in April.

The board’s ruling says Young gave the woman advice on an unrelated custody matter in another court in his district, including how to get the judge disqualified.

When her husband learned about the relationship, he confronted the judge, the board wrote. The judge didn’t recuse himself and allowed the the husband to adopt one of his wife’s children, according to the order.

The board concluded that affidavits, the hotel receipt and text messages between the judge and the woman corroborate the allegations.

The board had previously reprimanded Young in 2020, saying he admitted to sending inappropriate messages to women on social media platforms from 2015 to 2020 that ranged “from flirtatious to overtly sexual,” most of them depicting him in his judicial robe.

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This story corrects that Young’s suspension begins Tuesday, not Saturday.

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