Exclusive: the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability drops mic on rapping Judge Susie Norby

A few lines from Judge Susie Norby’s “rapped” verdict in Jajuane Etheridge’s criminal case.

When Jajuane Etheridge reported Clackamas Judge Susie Norby’s apparently racist conduct to the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability last year, he had no expectations of accountability or justice.

He knew that the majority of judicial whistleblowers are derided as merely disgruntled — rather than acknowledged as injured — and their complaints immediately dismissed. The scant few that move forward are nearly all handled in secrecy, with nobody but the accused judge knowing for certain how a complaint was resolved. Less than one percent of all complaints are ever made public.

Etheridge was therefore surprised to learn last month that his report about Judge Norby was one of the small handful that progressed and resulted in some sort of penalty — either an “informal sanction” or a “consent to censure.”

Under the Commission’s rules, either consequence is exempt from public disclosure. Nothing, however, prevents Etheridge from sharing his story.

Which is to say, an elected official did something bad and wrong, and voters will never hear anything about it, but for Etheridge’s determination that they do.

Etheridge was arrested in October 2012 for a notorious and extensively reported-upon crime, and he has been incarcerated ever since. He has consistently maintained his innocence.

There is substantial evidence to support his claim. However, his ineffective public defender urged Etheridge to allow a judge to weigh the evidence instead of a jury, due to their racism.

As a Black man in arguably the most racist state in America, Etheridge was rightly concerned about prejudice and Oregon’s then-non-unanimous jury verdicts. He was equally anxious that the crime he had been charged with was widely known — the publicity had already resulted in a tainted witness identification.

Etheridge therefore agreed to a bench trial before Judge Norby. He presumed that a judge would be fair, or at the very least least not racist.

How wrong that belief would prove to be.

According to Etheridge, after the conclusion of the three-day trial, Judge Norby “rapped” her verdict at him. That is also how it was widely reported in 2014, in local and international media.

Judge Norby also stopped herself just short of calling Etheridge something likely quite offensive and unjudgelike:

The actual transcript.

Etheridge stated that he “cannot imagine that she would ‘rap’ a verdict to a white defendant.” Her racism “stunned” him, leaving him feeling “scared, alone, [and] powerless.” He also wasn’t sure what Judge Norby stopped herself from saying, but he had “a few good guesses as to what word she was going to use to finish that sentence.”

His complaint was filed in early December 2021.

Etheridge receiving three letters from the Commission: one acknowledging receipt of his complaint and assigning case number 21–232; one in January which stated that the “investigation is ongoing;” and one in May. The final letter was light on details. It briefly stated:

“Thank you for submitting your concerns about Judge Susie Norby. The Commission completed its investigation and review of the above complaint that you filed against her and has communicated its views about her conduct directly to her. No further action will be taken by the commission.”

Meaning that Etheridge’s complaint against Judge Norby resulted in an informal sanction or a consent to censure:

Trying to make sense of the Commission’s “flow chart.”

The Opacity

Etheridge — or J.J. as he likes to be called — is one of the fortunate few victims of judicial unfitness whose complaint advanced to a point where a semblance of accountability occurred, no matter how non-transparently, and no matter if it was just a light slap on the wrist.

J.J. tells me, “It’s a little start and acknowledgement that what was done to me was wrong. I wish they would have acknowledged it publicly, but it’s a start.”

That lack of transparency is a huge problem for a state that elects its judges — the judges that the Commission claims it fairly and honestly monitors. It is also a huge disconnect for a government that so frequently boasts about its public records laws and transparency.

I guess you can say literally anything if you never have to prove that you’re telling the truth.

The Oregon Judicial Department, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office, and Etheridge’s public defender had no comment for this story.

Take the Oregon Judicial Department’s “Access and Fairness Survey” up until June 30, 2022.

And for a comparison of the transparency exhibited by other state judicial fitness commissions, visit the websites of Arizona, California, and Oregon.

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