The adversarial process can be messy. As a judge, it is sometimes difficult to remain above the fray. But, every state has a rule requiring that judges maintain the impartiality of the judicial system. That includes not favoring one side or the other in any dispute, even if the intentions are good.

Indiana Judge Rex Kepner was reminded of this on May 17 when the Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications issued him a public admonition for making a loan to a defendant to settle a dispute.

Everyone Walked Away Happy, Right?

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, former Benton Circuit Court Judge Rex Kepner presided over a dispute between two community members. The defendant, a young woman, was upset because she lost her job and her car broke down. The plaintiff, however, was owed money and was in court because of a default judgment. Judge Kepner asked what it would take to settle the dispute, and the plaintiff said $1,000 would be sufficient.

Judge Kepner retired to his chambers and shortly thereafter, through his court reporter, provided the defendant with $1,000. He did not indicate that he was the source of the money (it was from his personal finances) and only told the plaintiff that it was a loan she must pay back “when she was able.”

With this generous loan, the defendant was off the hook, the plaintiff got enough money to be satisfied with the outcome, and Judge Kepner could feel good about helping out a down-on-her-luck community member who probably needed it. A win-win, right? According to Kepner, everyone was smiling and happy.

Well, it’s not always the case that “all’s well that ends well” in the judicial system. Despite having good intentions and clearly not intending to be unfair to the plaintiff (who recovered money he might otherwise not have), judges cannot offer such direct help to litigants. Nor, for that matter, can attorneys.

The Commission wrote that “while judges can feel sympathy towards a litigant, judges must be mindful of the duty to remain impartial and to not allow such compassion to cause them to take actions … which cause the public to question their impartiality.”

That being said, they concluded that a public admonition was enough and did not issue formal charges.

There Are Opportunities to Help

Kepner acknowledged that he was in the wrong, saying that he was “blessed” and tried to give back where he could. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple when you are a judge presiding over a legal dispute. Kepner is no longer a Circuit Court judge (not because of this event) and is currently a prosecutor for Benton County.

Meanwhile, if you think it might be a good idea to help out a community member without all of the complications of being a circuit court judge, you might consider some pro bono work.

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