Judge suspended for comments on opioid case, sexual allegations

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

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

The unusual two-count suspension came from the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct, which found this week that Judge Jonathan Lee Young had mishandled both cases. An appeals court disqualified him from the opioid case and overturned his default judgment that would have brought the case directly to court over the amount of compensation to the plaintiffs. In the other case, he did not back down and ruled that the man could adopt one of his wife’s children.

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

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A voicemail left with Young’s office requesting comment was not immediately answered.

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

“Fortunately, it is rare for a judge’s investigation to get this far, and it is certainly rare to receive these serious allegations of sexual misconduct, and it is certainly rare to receive disciplinary action as a result of which you none to serve your term,” White said.

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

In the case brought by several local authorities against Endo Pharmaceuticals, Young told Law360 in February that this was the “worst case of document concealment” he had ever encountered, comparing it to a John Grisham film.

His comments came after he delivered an oral judgment in absentia against Endo, but before making a written decision later that month. In April, the Tennessee Court of Appeals removed him from the case and overturned the injunction, noting the judge’s further comment on the case on a Facebook page devoted in part to his re-election.

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The Judiciary Council said Young subsequently posted more on social media and conducted more media interviews about the case after the appeal decision. According to the board, Young wrote to the board in May that he had a constitutional right to his speech in front of news outlets and on social media.

Young’s disqualification resulted in a different outcome than a similar lawsuit by other local governments in Tennessee. There, another judge ruled that Endo was liable without a civil lawsuit, and ruled that there was a “coordinated strategy” by the company and its attorneys to delay proceedings, withhold information from plaintiffs and disrupt the administration of justice. The company settled that case for $35 million to avoid going to a jury trial over the damages.

In the other offense cited against Young, the board wrote about allegations that Young initiated communication with a woman in an adoption case filed with his court in March, in which he asked for explicit photos and then met her several times out of court, including at a hotel where they had sex in April.

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According to the council’s ruling, Young advised the woman on an unrelated custody case in another court in his district, including how to disqualify the judge.

When her husband learned about the relationship, he confronted the judge, the board wrote. The judge did not return and allowed the man to adopt one of his wife’s children, according to the warrant.

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

The board had reprimanded Young earlier in 2020, saying he admitted to sending inappropriate messages to women on social media platforms from 2015 to 2020, ranging from “flirty to overtly sexual”, with most portraying him in his court robes.

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