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Philly judge gets 6-month suspension for ‘blatant and inexcusable’ misconduct on the bench

The Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline ruled that Common Pleas Court Judge Lyris Younge exhibited “clearly improper conduct” on the bench in Family Court.

The Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, which houses the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
The Justice Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, which houses the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia judge will be suspended for six months after the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline ruled that her “repeated, clearly improper conduct” in Family Court — including illegally jailing parents, having parents handcuffed in her courtroom, and insulting and belittling people who appeared before her — was “blatant and inexcusable.”

In a scathing opinion released late Wednesday, the disciplinary tribunal ruled that Common Pleas Court Judge Lyris Younge will also serve a probationary term for the rest of her tenure, which extends to 2026, will be barred from serving in Family Court, and will be required to write apology letters to the people the panel said she wronged.

The court said the discipline was the harshest it had ever imposed without ordering a judge dismissed — a penalty it said has generally been reserved for judges accused or convicted of crimes.

Still, the court called Younge’s behavior “egregious,” and said: “No jurist should ever behave in such a manner.”

Two judges signed onto a dissenting opinion saying Younge’s penalty wasn’t stern enough. They said Younge should have been permanently removed for causing “one disaster after another” during her time on the bench. In one incident, she had a grandmother jailed because her adult daughter wouldn’t turn her baby over to the Department of Human Services — even though neither the daughter nor the infant was party to the matter before Younge.

The sanctions mark the end of a long and ugly saga that began attracting attention three years ago after parents, lawyers, and social workers raised concerns about Younge’s judicial temperament and the Legal Intelligencer highlighted the allegations in a series of stories.

Younge eventually admitted to many of the claims of judicial misconduct filed against her with the disciplinary board, including assertions that she failed to be impartial, caused “inordinate” delays in cases that should have been fast-tracked, denied parties a right to be heard in court, and detained or jailed parties without sufficient legal basis.

Younge’s attorney, Charles Gibbs, said in a statement that she had “dedicated her life to public service and helping others, and the Court’s decision will enable her to continue to pursue her passion in the justice system.”

“We thank the Court for allowing Judge Younge the opportunity to continue to be of service,” he added.

Through a spokesperson, Philadelphia court officials declined to comment on Younge’s sanctions.

Younge, a Democrat, was elected to the bench in 2015 after serving as a deputy city solicitor and executive in the city’s Department of Human Services. She served several years as a Family Court judge but was reassigned to handle civil proceedings after the complaints against her were raised in 2018. She is currently assigned to the nonjury arbitration appeals program in civil court.

As a judge in Family Court — which, among other things, handles child custody and juvenile delinquency cases — Younge regularly displayed “an improper demeanor that was impatient, discourteous, disrespectful, condescending, and undignified,” the disciplinary board said.

She frequently clashed with, cursed at, and berated lawyers, social workers, and parents, the board said. She improperly held an attorney in contempt for missing court while he was handling another matter before a different judge, and once said of a social worker: “I would not believe his tongue if it were notarized.”

At times, the board said, Younge’s harsh temperament had lasting consequences for people in her courtroom.

In 2016, when a mother fell ill and left a hearing, Younge prohibited her from reentering the courtroom, then terminated her parental rights.

The next year, when DHS filed a petition concerning custody of a newborn because the child and mother had tested positive for opiates, the board said Younge filed an order calling for protective custody of the baby and four older siblings — even though none of the older children were part of the DHS petition. Younge ordered the children’s mother and her fiancé handcuffed until all five children could be located at school and with a babysitter, the disciplinary board said.

“They just have to comply with the court order,” Younge said, according to the board. “If you guys don’t get the children, the parents will remain in custody.”

(The mother told The Inquirer after the episode that the positive opiate test was because she took a Percocet in the last days of her pregnancy to deal with pain.)

In 2018, after Younge ruled that three children should be removed from their mother’s home for truancy issues, she criticized the mother for not bringing the children to court, then had the woman handcuffed and taken to a holding cell until someone brought them in.

“That’s my order,” Younge said, according to documents filed by the board. “So how do you want to do this? I think we just put Mom in a cell ‘til I get these babies. I’ll be here ‘til four o’clock.”

She improperly jailed a father twice — for a total of 21 days — over what she believed to be a violation of a court order when he called his daughter, the board found.

And in December 2017, the board said, Younge ordered a grandmother jailed overnight “without a legal basis.” After ruling that two of the woman’s children should be removed from her care over allegations of physical abuse, Younge ordered that the woman’s adult daughter — who was not a part of the case — turn her infant over to DHS, because Younge incorrectly believed the baby lived with the grandmother.

When the grandmother said her oldest daughter and grandchild didn’t live with her and she didn’t know where they were, Younge replied: “OK. Well, that’s going to be a problem for you because you’re going to be on this van to State Road,” a reference to the city jails. “I’m going to hold you in state’s custody until I get the baby.”

Younge was found to have committed 10 violations of judicial conduct in all, and the disciplinary board said: “There is no question that the sum total of Judge Younge’s repeated and varied misconduct has brought disrepute upon the judiciary.”

Her suspension is to begin July 6.