Bethel Judge Again Under Fire For Questionable Behavior

A Bethel judge is once again under fire for inappropriate behavior.

It’s known as ex parte communications and it’s a big no-no in Alaska’s Judicial Conduct Code. It’s when a judge communicates with just one side of a trial off-record. Bethel District Judge Dennis Cummings is being investigated for such allegations for the second time.

Two years ago, he was suspended from the bench for 3-months without pay for passing notes in court to the prosecution. This time, charges allege that in June Cummings told a Prosecutor twice off-record to look at an opinion that would help his case.

The Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct unanimously determined that the conduct warranted formal charges. The nine-member agency, which enforces the state’s judicial conduct code, filed a formal complaint against Cummings on December 9. Cummings has 20 days to respond to the Commission.

The new complaint includes two charges. The first one details the most recent event, when Cummings allegedly approached an Assistant District Attorney off-record about a proceeding. According to the complaint, Cummings suggested that the Bethel attorney read recent opinions by the Court of Appeals as they were relevant to his litigation. Cummings allegedly did the same thing the following day. After reading the opinions, the attorney determined that they supported the State’s position in the cases, which Cummings would be hearing later in June. If the charge is proven, Cummings’ behavior went against the state’s judicial code.

The second charge alleges that Cummings has engaged in a pattern of improper ex parte communications. It refers to Cummings 2009 suspension by the Alaska Supreme Court. That stemmed from a trial in 2008, when Cummings passed a note to an Alaska State Trooper which contained evidence about the trial. The next day in court, he passed a second note to the trooper and the prosecutor, which also contained trial evidence.

Next the commission will begin pre-trial preparation, which will be followed by a hearing. If the charges are proven, then the commission will send its recommendations to the Alaska Supreme Court, which will decide if there should be any disciplinary action.

According to their statutes, the commission’s recommendations could range from a public reprimand to removal from office.

Cummings has been a judge in Bethel for over five years. Before the 2009 suspension, he had no prior disciplinary record.

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Angela Denning is a reporter at KFSK in Petersburg.

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