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Ex-judge suspended for sharp campaign tactics

The Missouri Supreme Court on Jan. 31 suspended the law license of a member of the state’s Administrative Hearing Commission, prompting him to resign.

The unanimous court, citing the “influential position” that Philip Prewitt previously held as an associate circuit judge in Macon County, ordered a suspension of at least two years.

A spokeswoman for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who named Prewitt to the AHC in 2019, said shortly after the opinion’s release that it had received Prewitt’s letter of resignation. Michael A. Gross, a St. Louis-based appellate attorney who represented Prewitt when the case was argued in November, declined to comment on the ruling.

Prewitt served as a judge from 2011 until losing his seat in 2018 to current Macon County Associate Circuit Judge Kristen Burks. The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel alleged that Prewitt threatened to use in his campaign information about affairs Burks’ husband had engaged in and to file an attorney ethics complaint against her based on her unsuccessful run against him in 2014.

While most attorney discipline cases are resolved via order, the court took the relatively rare step of explaining its reasoning in a 22-page opinion. Judge Robin Ransom, writing for the court, said Prewitt’s threat to file an ethics complaint against Burks was itself unethical. If it was true, she said, he had a duty to report it; if it was unfounded, it was harassment for him to say he would file it.

“A judge’s threat to file a required ethics complaint, at his discretion and for his benefit, destroys public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary; is an abuse of the prestige of judicial office for personal benefit; and is prejudicial to the administration of justice,” Ransom wrote.

The court also said Prewitt’s conduct raised the appearance that he’d used confidential information gained from one of the women involved in the affairs, whom he had represented in her divorce. The court said knowledge of the affairs wasn’t generally known in the community.

The court declined to analyze whether other statements Prewitt made were protected political speech. However, the court specifically found that comments he made at a local Republican Committee ice cream social about a prior disciplinary action against him were a “short, unscripted, and rushed campaign speech” that didn’t amount to a rule violation.

The case is In Re: Prewitt, SC99627.