The N.C. Supreme Court suspended District Court Judge William F. “Bill” Brooks of Wilkesboro from the bench without pay for 30 days on Friday for violating the N.C. Code of Judicial Conduct.
The court took this action after it and the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission found that Brooks violated the code by serving as executor of the estates of a couple not related to him and by not properly reporting nearly $90,000 he received for this.
The code prohibits judges from being executors for estates of non-family members. It requires that they disclose receiving more than $2,000 for activities beyond judicial functions in a Judicial Income Report and Statement of Economic Interest (SEI). They also must tell why it was received.
Brooks serves in the 23rd Judicial District counties of Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin. He practiced law for about 30 years before Gov. Pat McCrory appointed him to fill a vacancy created when Judge Mitchell L. McLean died in September 2013. Brooks, a Republican, was elected to four-year terms in 2014 and 2018 and is up for reelection in 2022.
In January 2020, the commission filed a statement charging Brooks with violating the code of conduct. In his March 2020 response, Brooks admitting serving “as a personal representative for the estates of two former family friends, who were clients, not members of his family.” He admitted collecting fees for this and “inadvertently” not disclosing this as required.
The commission stated that on an SEI form for 2016, Brooks acknowledged that he understood failure to disclose required information is a Class I misdemeanor.
Attorneys for Brooks and the commission jointly filed a statement of facts in May 2020 saying that about 3 ½ years before Brooks was appointed a judge, he prepared wills for Robert and Mary Grace Crawford of North Wilkesboro. In each will, Brooks was named executor.
The statement said Brooks “had known the Crawfords for many years and considered them to be like family, but acknowledges he was not related to them by blood or marriage.”
The statement said Brooks received a copy of the Code of Judicial Conduct and ethics training during Orientation for New District Court Judges in early December 2013.
Brooks received a $2,550 commission for being executor for the estate of Robert Crawford, who died in early March 2014. He received $85,320 for being executor for the Mary Grace Crawford estate after she died in late November 2014. He handled filings for these estates with the Wilkes Clerk of Superior Court until both were closed in 2017.
The statement said Brooks “knew or should have known” that he was required to report the extra-judicial income he received for serving as executor for the Crawford estates.
In a hearing before the commission on Sept. 11, 2020, Brooks made a statement in which he accepted responsibility for his actions, acknowledged that they were wrong and apologized for them. He also said, “I just did not realize for whatever reason that this could not be done.”
When called Friday afternoon, Brooks asked that his attorney, David B. Freedman of Winston-Salem, be contacted for comments on his behalf.
Freedman said by phone Friday evening, “Judge Brooks intended no harm. He should have been more aware and is very sorry for what he did.”
Freedman added, “Judge Brooks is thankful to have been elected by the people of Wilkes, Ashe, Alleghany and Yadkin counties and he appreciates being able to continue serving them.”
As mitigating factors, the commission found that Brooks cooperated, admitted error and showed remorse. The commission also noted that the misconduct at issue appears to be a single event and not recurring.
The commission said the large amount of extra-judicial income Brooks received and that it came from activity expressly prohibited in the code of conduct made his failure to disclose it particularly egregious.
The commission recommended that Brooks be censured by the Supreme Court. By censuring a judge, the Supreme Court finds that a judge willfully engaged in misconduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute.
The Supreme Court found that justification for censuring Brooks existed and adopted the commission’s findings of fact without exception, but added that harsher consequences were appropriate and ordered a 30-day suspension without pay.