Multitasking in Court

Published: 31 October 2023

                    closeup of business professionals texting on their phones

Feature Article: Multitasking in Court

Author: Dr. Michael H. Hoeflich

This article is featured in Volume 4, Number 10 of the Legal Ethics and Malpractice Reporter.

A rather bizarre and interesting case is wending its way through the Oklahoma judicial disciplinary system. The Chief Justice of Oklahoma initiated the case, whose charges involve the in-court behavior of a new judge, Traci Soderstrom, during a murder trial this past summer. The facts, as alleged by Chief Justice M. John Kane IV and reported by various media outlets, seem taken out of a bad television sitcom.

Judge Soderstrom’s acts occurred at the trial of Khristian Tyler Martzall. Mr. Martzall was on trial for murder. There are few situations in which a judge must be more vigilant and decorous than a murder trial—when someone’s life has already been lost and the life and freedom of the defendant depend on the trial’s outcome. It would appear from the Chief Justice’s forty-seven page complaint, that Judge Soderstrom was rather insensitive to the grave and delicate nature of the proceedings. According to reporting by the Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report, Justice Kane characterized Judge Soderstrom’s actions in the following way:

The pattern of conduct demonstrates [Soderstrom’s] gross neglect of duty, gross partiality and oppression. . . The conduct further demonstrates Respondent’s (Soderstrom’s) lack of temperament to serve as a judge.

These are extremely harsh words to come from the Chief Justice. The acts so characterized involved several things. First, throughout the trial, as caught on the courtroom security cameras, Judge Soderstrom was actively on her mobile phone texting and using social media. According to reports, Judge Soderstrom sent over 500 texts during the course of the trial. This, alone, should be very concerning. But perhaps even more concerning was the content of these texts, which mocked virtually everyone involved in the trial. The New York Times reported:

Judge Soderstrom and the bailiff “called murder trial witnesses liars, admired the looks of a police officer who was testifying, disparaged the local defense bar, expressed bias in favor of the defendant and displayed gross partiality against the state,” . . . 

While the district attorney was addressing jurors during jury selection, Judge Soderstrom wrote that he was “sweating thru his coat,” to which the bailiff responded: “Yes. It’s gross. He’s gross and a horrible speaker.”

The judge texted the bailiff that the jury was “going to hate” the district attorney, then responded to the bailiff’s “crass and demeaning reference” to the prosecutor’s genitals with a “ha ha” icon, the petition states. In another text to the bailiff about the district attorney, Judge Soderstrom wrote: “Why does he have baby hands? … They are so weird looking.”

In a text that would seem to be almost enough proof on its own of the judge’s partiality, she wrote during the defense attorney’s opening statements: “She’s awesome,” and “Can I clap for her?”

Indeed, in one text, to the bailiff, another court officer, the judge called the co-defendant a liar at least three times—including while the co-defendant was on the stand. Other texts contained derisive comments about people’s hair and their sexual attraction.

It is extremely important to recognize that this was a murder trial involving the death by battering of a two-year-old girl—not the sort of trial that one would expect a judge to treat as a source of merriment. The obvious outrage in Chief Justice Kane’s complaint is understandable and echoes the language of the Oklahoma Code of Judicial Conduct:

[1]  An independent, fair and impartial judiciary is indispensable to our system of justice. The United States legal system is based upon the principle that an independent, impartial, and competent judiciary, composed of men and women of integrity, will interpret and apply the law that governs our society. Thus, the judiciary plays a central role in preserving the principles of justice and the rule of law. Inherent in all the Rules contained in this Code are the precepts that judges, individually and collectively, must respect and honor the judicial office as a public trust and strive to maintain and enhance confidence in the legal system.

[2]  Judges should maintain the dignity of judicial office at all times, and avoid both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in their professional and personal lives. They should aspire at all times to conduct that ensures the greatest possible public confidence in their independence, impartiality, integrity, and competence.

It is hard to fathom that a judge would engage in such behavior in a courtroom. We can hope that this case is only a fluke. But, in a culture that does not necessarily trust or respect lawyers, judges, or the judicial system, the facts set out in Judge Kane’s petition certainly don’t help the legal profession.

Due to the fact that so many of those involved in the break-in and cover up of the Watergate scandal—including President Nixon—were lawyers, there was great fear that widespread public trust in lawyers was on the verge of being lost. I fear that after years of very public attacks on judges and the system of justice, many Americans no longer trust the judiciary nor do they take it seriously. While the case of Judge Soderstrom may be a fluke, it may also be a warning that the legal profession and the judiciary at every level has to find better ways to convince the public that the legal system is a critical part of our nation and that the public must recognize that there are few offices in our nation that are more important to the maintenance of our democratic institutions.


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