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OCDC faults former judge for campaign conduct

A member of Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission is facing potential discipline for alleged professional misconduct while he was an associate circuit judge.

The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel alleges that Philip Prewitt, who was on the Macon County bench from 2011 to 2018, made statements during his unsuccessful bid for re-election that called his impartiality into question. The agency also alleges that Prewitt threatened to release embarrassing personal information about his opponent, including confidential information he allegedly obtained from a client while in private practice.

Prewitt denied the allegations in a responsive filing to the agency. He also argued that OCDC’s allegations “constitute double jeopardy,” as similar complaints were lodged against him while he was still on the bench. Prewitt’s filing said he left office early because he “was promised and relied on such promise that in the event he resigned his position as Associate Circuit Judge, he would not be forced to face discipline for conduct that occurred while serving as an Associate Circuit Judge.”

An attorney for Prewitt, Ira M. Berkowitz of St. Louis, didn’t respond to a phone message and email seeking comment. A message left with Prewitt at the Administrative Hearing Commission, where he was appointed in 2019, also wasn’t returned.

OCDC’s information was filed in late 2020 and became public in March after Prewitt filed his response. The case has not been scheduled for a disciplinary hearing, and any recommended actions against Prewitt almost certainly would require review by the Missouri Supreme Court.

OCDC’s case stems in part from a reprimand that was issued against Prewitt in 2015, when the Supreme Court found he had violated judicial canons by, among other things, posting on Facebook about decisions and soliciting donations for local charities.

OCDC alleged that during the 2018 re-election campaign Prewitt gave a speech at a local Republican Committee ice cream social in which he “inferred that he had been reprimanded by the Missouri Ethics Commission solely for supporting” the charities, which included an anti-abortion pregnancy center. According to OCDC’s information, Prewitt stated that the reprimand was “a badge of honor,” and that he referred to the need to maintain a Republican majority in the courthouse.

OCDC said the judge’s statements “materially misrepresented who had disciplined him and the reasons for the discipline,” and “called into question his ability to be fair and impartial to any person appearing in his court who was not a member of the Republican party.” Prewitt denied those allegations and said he had “no recollection as to the veracity” of any quotes attributed to him.

OCDC also alleged that Prewitt made threats against his Democratic opponent, Kristen Burks, by telling her he planned to reveal information about extramarital affairs involving her ex-husband to the public and to her family. Prewitt had represented one of the women involved in the affairs in her divorce, and, according to OCDC, she “discussed confidential information with [Prewitt] regarding her affair with Mr. Burks.”

In his response, Prewitt said he “stated he might send a flyer which may mention her husband had affairs,” but he denied having made any threats or discussing any confidential information regarding the affair with his former client.

Burks had run against Prewitt in 2014 and won the judgeship in 2018. She did not respond to a message left with her chambers at the Macon County courthouse.

OCDC also leveled a charge based on a 2016 consent order Prewitt entered into with the Missouri Ethics Commission, after his campaign received a $2,600 contribution from the Macon County Republican Committee but listed it as a personal loan from Prewitt. Prewitt’s campaign later corrected the source of the funds on campaign finance reports.

In his response to OCDC, Prewitt acknowledged the incident but noted that the Ethics Commission concluded that no discipline was warranted and denied that he had violated any judicial canons.

In fact, Prewitt argued that OCDC lacks jurisdiction to pursue alleged violations of judicial canons at all. In its information, OCDC noted that the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline, which oversees judicial discipline, lost jurisdiction when Prewitt resigned from the bench days before a scheduled December 2018 hearing before that agency.

But, OCDC argued, “a judge who is no longer in office, but who has committed misconduct while in office, is subject to discipline by Informant for his or her acts as a judicial officer.” The agency said it was charging Prewitt’s conduct under both the code of judicial conduct and the rules of professional conduct that govern attorneys.

Jim Smith, administrator and counsel for the judicial discipline commission, declined to comment on Prewitt’s account of his resignation from the bench, citing confidentiality rules.

The case is In Re: Prewitt, DHP-20-021.


This post has been updated with a response from the Commission on Retirement, Removal and Discipline.