A Franklin County judge is denying allegations by the Ohio Supreme Court’s disciplinary counsel that she dictated the terms of a parenting agreement in a divorce case and required the father to sign it without consulting with his attorney.
A lawyer for Domestic Relations/Juvenile Court Judge Kim A. Browne this week filed a formal response to the allegations, saying Browne did not issue a directive or dictate the terms of the parenting agreement that the couple signed.
The judge “was not present for any of the negotiations or for the drafting of the agreement,” according to the response filed by Michael Close, the attorney representing Browne.
The complaint against Browne was filed Dec. 15 by Disciplinary Counsel Joseph Caligiuri before the state Board of Professional Conduct. It accuses her of violating three provisions of the code of judicial conduct, including one that states judges “shall not act in a manner that coerces any party into settlement.”
The board will hear the case and recommend to the Ohio Supreme Court whether Browne should face disciplinary sanctions, which can range from a public reprimand to the loss or suspension of her law license.
The incident occurred on Feb. 3, 2021, when Browne, a judge for 19 years, conducted a hearing on a man’s request for a domestic-violence civil protection order against his wife during the course of their divorce proceedings.
After denying the man’s civil-protection request, Browne announced that “she intended to order week-on/week-off parenting time” for the separated couple, the complaint states.
The complaint alleges that, despite the absence of the husband’s attorney, Browne told the wife’s attorney to draft an entry in the divorce case regarding parenting time, under terms that the judge dictated to him.
Browne “told the parties that they could not leave the courthouse until they either signed the entry she had dictated or entered into a parenting agreement of their own,” the complaint alleges.
The estranged couple and the wife’s attorney went out into the hallway, where, the complaint states, the husband “signed the entry because he felt he had no other option.”
Close told The Dispatch that the judge denies the complaint’s allegation that she was made aware during the hearing that the father had an attorney.
“Until this complaint was filed, the judge had no idea that the father had an attorney,” Close said.
That and other allegations could become a “he-said/she-said” situation because, according to Close’s response, “There exists no official record(ing) of this proceeding due to a system malfunction.”
Although the complaint states that the child was in the father’s custody at the time of the hearing, “there was no court order granting (the father) possession, placement or custody of the child,” Close wrote.
Because the couple’s child was born before they were married, under Ohio law the mother had full custodial rights, he told The Dispatch.
According to Close, a former Franklin County common pleas and appeals court judge, Browne had good reason to encouraged the parties at the hearing to reach a parenting agreement.
“I don’t think anybody understood that, what happened at the end of this civil-protection hearing was, mother had the right to walk out of that courtroom with the child and dad would not have seen it again until sometime a couple of months later when there would have been a hearing on custody,” he said. “I think it put the judge in the untenable position of having to say, ‘Look fellas, we need to get this resolved because, in the best interests of the child, the child should not be deprived of seeing both parents.'”
Browne was appointed to a vacancy on the bench in 2002 by then-Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican. She won election that year to complete the term and has won reelection three times as an endorsed Republican. She is expected to seek another six-year term in November.
In June, Browne announced her intention to switch her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in a filing with the county board of elections.