Utah judge suspended for anti-Trump remarks, return to bench likely

A lower court judge in Taylorsville, Utah has been suspended after a long history of inappropriate remarks on the bench and in social media. The question now is, what took so long?

Judge Michael Kwan was suspended without pay for six months because of comments made over the last several years against President Trump. His Facebook posts were described as “laden with blunt, and sometimes indelicate, criticism” of the president. Kwan’s anti-Trump criticisms began during the 2016 presidential campaign and continued into his presidency.

“Judge Kwan’s behavior denigrates his reputation as an impartial, independent, dignified, and courteous jurist who takes no advantage of the office in which he serves,” said the ruling, authored by Utah Supreme Court Justice John A. Pearce. “And it diminishes the reputation of our entire judiciary.”

It turns out that a judge saying a president’s election ushers in a fascist takeover doesn’t sit well with the Utah Supreme Court which concluded that Kwan’s behavior violated Utah’s Code of Judicial Conduct. His remarks both on Facebook and in court could undermine the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality, according to the high court’s decision. Could?

Judge Kwan is not a freshman judge. He’s been on the bench for over 20 years as a justice court judge, which is referred to as a municipal court judge in other states and also known as a traffic court judge. He presides over misdemeanor cases and small claims cases. His court has limited jurisdiction. Kwan has been reprimanded twice in the past for several allegations of misconduct. The Utah Supreme Court determined he has made inappropriate comments on his Facebook page, LinkedIn, and in court. Kwan was also found to have improperly handled a personnel matter.

Several days after the 2016 election, the ruling said, Kwan wrote, “Think I’ll go to the shelter to adopt a cat before the President-Elect grabs them all” — a thinly-veiled reference to the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump was heard using vulgar language to refer to grabbing women’s genitals.

On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Kwan made a comment directed at the President that said, “Will you dig your heels in and spend the next four years undermining our country’s reputation and standing in the world? … Will you continue to demonstrate your inability to govern and political incompetence?”

On February 13, 2017, several weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Kwan made another post, the ruling said.
“Welcome to the beginning of the fascist takeover,” it read, questioning whether Republicans in Congress would “be the American Reichstag and refuse to stand up for the Constitution,” referring to the parliamentary body of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler.

Those examples were cited in the state’s Supreme Court’s ruling, though the ruling noted those remarks were “not a comprehensive recitation” of Kwan’s less than professional comments. Kwan claimed that he is entitled to conduct himself in this manner because of his rights under the First Amendment. He said his comments are constitutionally protected. While the Utha Supreme Court didn’t specifically address that claim, it did determine that more importantly, Judge Kwan used his judicial office as a platform to criticize a politician. His position requires his behavior to meet a higher standard.

Judges, the ruling noted, must make sacrifices in their line of work.

“Fulfillment of judicial duties does not come without personal sacrifice of some opportunities and privileges available to the public at large,” it said, adding that a judge must sometimes “set aside the power of his or her voice … as a tool to publicly influence the results of a local, regional, or national election.”

While Kwan’s remarks addressed political issues on a national level, the ruling said, those issues could factor into questions that come up in court. Additionally, they could “cause those who disagree with Judge Kwan’s politics to believe that they will not receive a fair shake when they appear before him.”

That is what I would be concerned about if I was a defendant in his courtroom. I’m not an attorney but as a citizen, I expect a judge to put personal political opinions aside and perform his legal responsibilities without prejudice. For instance, Kwan randomly brought up Trump’s tax cuts and the border wall to a defendant in 2017. That mini-rant brought about an investigation.

An investigation was opened after Kwan made comments about Trump during court in 2017, KSTU reported. He told a defendant who said he planned to use his tax return for his court fees that he would need to pray in order to get a tax return because of Trump’s proposed border wall along the southern border.

“Prayer might be the answer. ‘Cause, [Trump] just signed an order to start building the wall and he has no money to do that, and so if you think you are going to get taxes back this year, uh-yeah, maybe, maybe not,” Kwan reportedly said. “But don’t worry, there is a tax cut for the wealthy so if you make over $500,000 you’re getting a tax cut.”

Yikes. That’s a lot of hostility voiced to a guy that just wanted to explain how he was going to pay for court costs. Kwan probably didn’t know if the defendant was a “Deplorable” or not when he unleashed that criticism of Trump’s policies. How can anyone coming before Kwan feel assured he or she will get fair treatment regardless of political affiliation?

Kwan expressed regret for his behavior through his attorney and pledged not to do it again. And then the race card was thrown. Kwan hoped the Utah Supreme Court would have been more sympathetic toward him because he is the son of Chinese immigrants. Kwan thinks his “harsh punishment” – his suspension without pay – is due to past reprimands. I sure hope so. If the judge continues to act inappropriately after past reprimands, he should be punished accordingly. It’s as though he expects a free pass because he’s the child of immigrants or something. That logic makes no sense.

Kwan’s attorney said he and Kwan think ” the sanction is grossly disproportionate to the conduct.” I think he’s lucky he was only suspended for six months. It sounds as though he doesn’t deserve to be on the bench at all.

Kwan has been reprimanded twice in the past for apparent violations of the code of conduct, the ruling noted. One case dealt with a “crass in-court reference” to the sexual conduct of a former president, and the other with Kwan’s political activities as president of a nonprofit.

I assume the former president was Bill Clinton. I can only imagine what the “crass in-court reference” was or why Kwan would bring it up in his courtroom. Clearly, he’s been on borrowed time for a long time.

Kwan’s political affiliation is unknown because he keeps his voter registration private, which is an option in Utah. An interim judge has been appointed to fill in during his suspension. It will be up to the city of Taylorsville to re-hire him when his suspension is completed. A city spokeswoman said “as far as she knows”, Kwan will be re-hired.